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Making a connection

Families are strange, and wonderful.

Over Memorial Day weekend, my grandmother turned 75 years old.

In celebration of that milestone, friends and extended relatives from around the country, gathered outside of Atlanta to honor her, and rejoice in the fact that she has lived this long.

Leading up to the occasion, my heart was glad, but I felt slightly uneasy. While I love my grandmother, and the legacy she has left behind, I realized that I still don't know a whole lot about her.

To be more specific, I never met my grandmother until I had turned the age of 21.

Like many families, mine has experienced times of difficulty and strain. For reasons that I may never be fully privy to, my father was raised by parents other than my grandmother, and have never been extremely close.

For that reason, I never saw my grandmother growing up. I remember speaking to her once or twice over the phone, but I was too young to remember the conversation.

The first time I saw my grandmother was at my senior recital at college. I was a music major at Emory University, and my grandmother, a New York native, had retired in Georgia shortly before I came to Atlanta to study.

The first time I laid eyes on my grandmother -- the person who had been the missing link in my family for so long -- I was a grown man. The best parts of my character were already established, and my personal aspirations had already been solidified.

My initial reaction was apprehension. After years of no contact, conversation, or even birthday cards, I was perplexed by the challenge of rekindling a flame that had been dim for so long.

I found myself asking myself, "How do you get back 21 years?"

It took me another three years after that initial meeting to find the answer to that question.

The answer is that you can't. You can't reclaim the minutes, hours and years you lose when you lose touch with someone.

To some extent, I had always known that. I've had close friends from high school and college fall to the wayside as our lives progressed in different directions, but it really hit home when I witnessed the advanced age of the grandmother I had never met.

After I graduated from college, I left the country to go on my own adventures. Somehow, either through fate or circumstance, I ended up back in the Atlanta area three years later, working near where my grandmother has continued to live out the rest of her days.

While I knew I could never get that time back, I eventually realized I could, in fact, make a connection.

Bridges are masterful works of architecture, requiring skill, careful planning, and a lot of manual labor. The same can be said when trying to build a bridge to another person.

In the course of building a relationship bridge with my grandmother, I've spent several Sundays in an old, hot, non-air-conditioned church off Hollowell Parkway, stood in ridiculously long lines for Mother's Day brunches, and spent many hours sitting on uncomfortable 1970s-era furniture.

Establishing a relationship hasn't been an easy effort, but I guess anything of value never is.

My face was probably not the most recognizable, or even the most memorable, at my grandmother's 75th birthday, but it was there. While I still don't know everything about my grandmother, I now know a little bit more, and that is what's important.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.