The sources of teen stress come from many directions, and oftentimes, the best way for them to cope is by leaning into the supportive relationships in their lives. With this in mind, we wanted to hear how teenagers themselves are navigating the pressures they face through the people and bonds that matter most to them. Thrive joined forces again with Write the World to host a narrative writing competition to give young people’s perspectives a global audience. The prompt? Human Connections: the relationships that power you through life. Featured below is the runner-up entry of the competition, which was guest judged by Thrive’s Editorial Director, Marina Khidekel.

I watch my grandmother’s hands, soft and wrinkled but firm from years of work, as they weave threads around the needles with impressive ease. I focus, trying to copy the movements, but all I make is a knotted mess. I sigh, frustrated, as my grandmother chuckles. She stares at me with kind eyes through wire-frame glasses, takes my needles, and starts untangling the spider web of threads. I attempt to explain my predicament, but my Marathi is cracked and immature from years of not speaking it. 

“I speak English, too,” she says, smiling.

I lean against the crimson couch and stare at the sunlight swimming through the saffron curtains into her living room. It is the summer after third grade — the first time I visited my parents’ home country of India. During this journey, I learned a lot about human and family bonds. Connections between people are complex kaleidoscopes, constantly forming and breaking, stretching and squeezing — constantly changing. Connections can be hard to understand, but we encounter lessons about relationships each day; we can maintain better connections by learning from the ones we already have in our lives. 

While I met many extended family members during my trip to India, most of my time was spent in the home of my maternal grandparents. My family members are important to me; I just don’t get to see them often because many live abroad. However, this doesn’t keep me from treasuring the memories and traditions of my family. When I close my eyes, I can still imagine the perfume of incense and spices that fills my grandparents’ house… 

My stomach sinks as the phone rings. I am back home, halfway around the world several years later. It is my birthday, which means one certain thing: phone calls from relatives wishing me a good year. The phone rings again, refusing to be ignored. It is what I have come to dread — a call from my grandmother. I love my grandmother, but between her hard hearing and my disappointing Marathi, I have increasing trouble communicating with her every year. 

My mother saves me by picking up the phone, her neck bent to one side. Marathi conversation fills the room. They talk about relatives and weather; the week and school and me. My mother finally asks my grandmother the same question she has for the past six years: “When will you visit us?” My grandmother, living across the world, always seems to have an excuse, as she would much rather us visit her. In fact, she hasn’t visited the U.S. since I was just a baby. My mother sighs and hands me the phone. 

“Talk to her — tell her how much you want her to come,” my mother whispers to me. I swallow as I put the phone to my ear. I want her to visit, but I never try and convince her. It feels wrong to take advantage of my connection to her to push her to do something — I don’t want to make her feel as if she has neglected me. So, I answer her questions, like every year, with a mix of Marathi, English, and empty enthusiasm. I say goodbye and hang up the phone with a heavy feeling in my chest. The language barrier between me and my Indian relatives is always a difficult door to pass through. 

At home and in school, I hardly speak Marathi. Even in India, when I spoke it often, I avoided talking to people who weren’t relatives. However, though language is important, one thing is certain: Kindness and caring are universal. Through my connections that involve language barriers, I have learned that the most important thing in a bond is showing love and compassion. Through kindness, human connections can bridge gaps of differences and, if maintained, can last forever, no matter the obstacles they face. 

The Borivali sky is a pane of sea glass as I walk along the road to my grandmother’s house, lined with shrubs with fragrant, pale flowers — like fallen stars. They smell of sun and citrus, of old and new. When the wind blows, their petals scatter onto the road like delicate wings, only to be crushed by muddy shoes and tires. I feel sorry for their beauty — so easily destroyed — so I reach down and pick up the damp petals from the road, clutching the cool slivers in my hand and dreaming of preserving their sweet scent forever. When I reach my grandmother’s house, she is puzzled. She asks me why I would collect the petals, bruised and broken. 

“Perfume,” I say in my third grade voice. My grandmother shakes her head, smiling. She fills an old pot with water and sets it to boil. With wise hands, she brushes the petals gently onto the water. A floral aroma wafts through the air and curls of steam whisper from the stove. When the concoction cools, she pours it into a bottle, careful not to spill a drop, as if it is a precious serum. To my knowledge, the bottle is still there, waiting patiently by the lace curtains, for someone to unscrew the cap and enjoy the summery scent of memories.

Ultimately, my family experiences have taught me that human connections can surpass strong barriers, such as language, distance, and time. Connections are built on interaction, fade from the lack of it, strengthen with trust, and stretch inevitably because of the change that accompanies the passing of time. 

Just like that plastic bottle of homemade perfume, my connection with my grandmother lasts, despite not seeing her for nearly six years. Time can make connections, such as the one between me and my grandmother, more distant. Nevertheless, I continue to cherish her bond. With enough love and patience, even the most challenged connections can remain fresh and everlasting, like memories of crimson couches and saffron notes, of tattered petals and tangled threads and cool sea glass mornings — memories I will never forget. 

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis