Today is the day we set aside to honour grandparents – to acknowledge the unique roles they play in all our lives. Because of them, our world is a kinder, more patient and loving place. Because of them, we are (literally!) here. But you don’t need to be a biological grandparent to be one in spirit. I know many ‘honorary’ grandmas and grandpas who have made a tremendous difference in the lives of younger people because they were willing to be there, to accept and love them, and to be a part of their lives. I will never forget the kindness of my next door neighbour, crusty old Mr. Higgins, who refinished my front door and repaired my broken window simply because he knew I had no money and my Dad was thousands of miles away. And when I went over to thank him, Mrs. Higgins was waiting to serve me warm, fresh-baked Scottish shortbread!
But our debt of gratitude to our grandparents – honorary or otherwise – is not just about the things they ‘did’ for us. When I think of my grandparents, among the jumbled cascade of memories, one that sticks out in my mind is the wonderful day I played in the mud in Grandma Krause’s garden bed – something my mother would never have tolerated! And there were those baby ducks that Grandpa Krause let me play with on the floor in the kitchen. They were so adorable, even though they (sadly) graduated to the table at Thanksgiving. And how could I ever forget my complete ‘fail’ at milking a cow! Although I didn’t manage to get any milk in the pail, I did squirt Grandpa in the face – which brought my ‘milking lesson’ to an abrupt close. I was clearly not cut out to be a farm girl!
But I was especially close to my Grandma and Grandpa Bodener, and when I was a not-so-lovable teenager, what stands out in my memory is my Grandma Bodener’s unconditional love. She was so tiny and frail then, and every time I saw her she told me how wonderful I was. To be honest, I was into a lot of stuff that was anything but wonderful, and I knew in my heart that what she said wasn’t true. But at the same time, I wanted to live up to her vision of who she thought I was. She always believed in me, and maybe because of that, there was a deep and enduring connection between us.
Today, I am the grandparent, and among the questions I ask myself are, “How can I be a better grandma? And how I can help create the kinds of memories that will nurture and strengthen my grandchildren? How can I share what I have learned over the years, and help them understand how much they are truly loved and cherished – not just by me, but by God?”
- Share your time
Perhaps the first thing we can do is to share the gift of ourselves. Time is a precious commodity in today’s fast-paced world. When I asked my 3-year old granddaughter what she thought good grandparents do, she unhesitatingly replied, “Take them to the playground!” It reminded me that grandchildren don’t care if we are smart, talented, or have money – unless, of course, we happen to be at the ice-cream store! They just want us to be there and have fun with them – so they can give us their hearts and their wet, smooshy kisses and leave behind those endearingly sticky little fingerprints as a reminder of how much we are loved in return.
As they grow, our grandchildren want us to share in their lives with us – to cheer them on when they graduate from kindergarten (or high school!), to celebrate their accomplishments with them, and to laugh at their goofy costumes and antics. They need our encouragement, and they are longing to share what’s on their hearts – if we are prepared to truly listen.
I used to think that as I got older (and hopefully wiser!), my children (and grandchildren) would turn to me for wisdom and advice. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the ‘wisdom’ they seek is not always the same wisdom I long to share. Children – and grandchildren – want our ears. They need our unconditional love and acceptance; they need us to be in their corner no matter what happens or how much they mess things up. They need us to believe in them and to support them as they struggle with life’s challenges, and to share in their sorrows as well as their joys. “How beautiful … is the encouragement an elderly person manages to pass on to a young person who is seeking the meaning of faith and of life!,” said Pope Francis. “It is truly the mission of grandparents, the vocation of the elderly. The words of grandparents have special value for the young. And the young know it. I still carry with me, always, in my breviary, the words my grandmother consigned to me in writing on the day of my priestly ordination. I read them often and they do me good.”1
There are no prerequisites for being a grandparent. You don’t need to be particularly talented or gifted or have a university degree to be a witness of love. ‘Grandparenting’ is a state in life that invites us to open our hearts, to love and give generously of ourselves – and to maybe bake cookies and build Lego from time to time. Rocking a sick child so that a tired Mom can get a bit of rest, reading stories and playing games, helping parents with the driving, and attending school events are all ways that we can nurture these important relationships – that we can love and be loved. And though it’s popular to see the negatives in technology today, what a blessing it is to be able to Skype with our children and grandchildren – to be able to stay in touch in a personal way, to watch our grandchildren grow, and to let them know how much we care – even though we may be thousands of miles away.
- Share your traditions
Our memories and the stories of our past are an endless source of fascination for our grandchildren. We have lived in times and visited places that they can only imagine – a time when there was no air conditioning, when computers took up entire rooms, and when answering the phone meant you were at home. How they laugh at the cars we used to drive, the weird clothes we used to wear, and the strange hairstyles and dances that used to be all the rage! They want to know everything about us – about their roots – so they can understand how they fit into the picture. They love hearing stories about what life was like when we were growing up, what their great-great grandparents were like, and how their forbears ‘walked to school wearing cardboard shoes in minus 30 degree weather’ every day!
Grandparents play an important role in creating family memories and traditions. Birthday celebrations, Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings, and family gatherings around the Christmas tree (or on FaceTime!) give us all a strong sense of belonging, the conviction that we are loved, and memories that will carry us through good and bad times. Our family still fights over my mother-in-law’s buns and my mother’s strawberry jam and butter tarts, and no birthday celebration would be complete without the ‘special’ Betty Crocker chocolate cake I’ve made for my children every year since they were born. I’ll never be a great baker, but somehow just being together and sharing these simple traditions helps us know that we are part of something that matters – that we matter – and that we are loved and accepted for who we are.
- Share your faith
Finally, one of the most important things we can do as grandparents is to share our faith. Pope Francis said, “In a special way, old age is a time of grace, in which the Lord renews his call to us: he calls us to safeguard and transmit the faith, he calls us to pray, especially to intercede; he calls us to be close to those in need. … The elderly, grandparents have the ability to understand the most difficult of situations: a great ability! And when they pray for these situations, their prayer is strong; it is powerful! Grandparents, who have received the blessing to see their children’s children (cf. Ps 128: 6), are entrusted with a great responsibility: to transmit their life experience, their family history, the history of a community, of a people; to share wisdom with simplicity, and the faith itself — the most precious heritage! Happy is the family who have grandparents close by! A grandfather is a father twice over and a grandmother is a mother twice over.”2
Grandparents have, at times, played heroic roles in passing on the faith, especially in times of religious persecution. “When mom and dad weren’t home or when they had strange ideas, which the politics of the time taught them, it was the grandmothers who passed on the faith,” notes Pope Francis.3 But sharing our faith doesn’t mean that we have an open invitation to preach and proselytize. And if our children have fallen away from the faith, it doesn’t mean we have the right to baptize our grandchildren under cover of night or undermine the love they have for their parents. But we can be ourselves, we can explain what we believe and why we do what we do in a way they can understand, and we can pray and sacrifice on their behalf.
Sometimes we feel our prayers are unimportant, but as Pope Francis reminds us, “The prayer of grandparents and of the elderly is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure! A great injection of wisdom for the whole of human society: above all for one which is too busy, too taken, too distracted. … A great believer of the last century, of the Orthodox tradition, Olivier Clément, said: ‘A civilization which has no place for prayer is a civilization in which old age has lost all meaning. And this is terrifying. For, above all, we need old people who pray; … because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing.”4
- Grand parenting is a relationship
Grandparents play a very important role in the lives of their grandchildren, but it would be a mistake to think that this relationship is one-sided. Pope Francis once shared a story he heard as a child. “The protagonist is a family – ‘dad, mum, many children’ – and a grandfather, who when he ate soup at the table ‘dirtied his face’. Annoyed, the father buys a coffee table to isolate his parent. One day that same dad comes home and sees one of the children playing with wood. “What are you making?” he asks. “A table,” replied the child. “And why?” “For you, Dad, for when you get old like Grandpa.” Francis said this story was a good lesson learnt for him. “Grandparents are a treasure. The Letter to the Hebrews, the twelfth chapter tells us: ‘Remember your leaders, who have preached to you, those who have preached the Word of God. And considering their outcome, imitate their faith. The memory of our ancestors brings us to the imitation of faith.”5
It is our responsibility to honour our grandparents, to love and treasure them, and to care for them. In a meeting with the elderly, Pope Francis said, “A people who does not take care of grandparents, who does not treat them well has no future! Why does it have no future? Because such a people loses its memory and is torn from its roots. But beware: it is your responsibility to keep these roots alive in yourselves with prayer, by reading the Gospel and with works of mercy. In this way we will remain as living trees, that even in old age will not stop bearing fruit. One of the most beautiful aspects of family life, of our human life as a family, is caressing a baby and being caressed by a grandfather and a grandmother.”6
And so to all those who have loved and caressed us and shared our way, I would like to express our thanks and raise a toast. Happy Grandparents’ Day!
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Pope Francis, “General Audience 11 March 2015,” available from https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150311_udienza-generale.html; Internet; accessed 3 September 2015.
2 Pope Francis, “Meeting of the Pope with the Elderly: Address of Pope Francis,” 28 September 2014; available from https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/september/documents/papa-francesco_20140928_incontro-anziani.html; Internet; accessed 3 September 2015.
3 Pope Francis, “A nation that does not respect grandparents, has no future, because it has no memory,” 19 November 2013, Vatican Insider [online news]; available from http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/santa-marta-29883/; Internet; accessed 3 September 2015.
4 Pope Francis, “General Audience 11 March 2015.”
5 Pope Francis, “A nation that does not respect grandparents, has no future, because it has no memory,” 19 November 2013.
6 Pope Francis, “Meeting of the Pope with the Elderly: Address of Pope Francis,” 28 September 2014.