Growing up, I knew only one of my grandparents. By the time I was born, my mother’s parents and my father’s father were all deceased. I was the fourth and last child in my immediate family. My parents were in their early forties when I was born. My Father was the second to the youngest of 9 children and my mother the youngest of four. Each of us was born later in the chain of events for our families. My parents’ parents were the first generation to immigrate from their families, so both my parents were first-generation Americans and they did not know their grandparents back in the “old country”.
Knowing my grandmother was quite different from many of my peers. The typical experience of grandparents portrayed on television and in other families showed a greater degree of involvement than my own. My interaction with my grandmother, also known as “Nunny”, was also limited by our greater distance from the geographical heart of the family. My grandmother was significantly advanced in years when I knew her. Of the first 17 years of my life, she was in her nineties for ten of them. I remember her gentleness and sweetness with us (although she was less so with my Aunt or my father on occasion), how she would speak to us in Italian without realizing it, how her wrinkled skin felt when we embraced, and the sound of her words due to the loss of her teeth. She would always give us grandchildren a couple dollars each when our visit was over. This donation caused a stir with my father who knew how limited her income was. I remember how saddened she was that we once put it back on her dresser before departing. It’s good to remember and, regardless of the limits of that relationship, she was a gift.
Akin to a grandmother, literally and figuratively, was my Aunt Ann. The eldest child in the family, she lived with and cared for my grandmother. She was my father’s elder by 21 years. She raised my father and some of her other siblings. She had three of her own children who were not all that much younger than my own parents, relatively speaking. Aunt Ann’s grandchildren were older than me and a few of the youngest were my age. She was not one of those permissive auntie types. Aunt Ann knew discipline, but she also knew love, which she knew by wisdom were one and the same. She would knit slippers for us, tell us the family history, and she enjoyed a good laugh. I recall the sound of that laughter, the silent moments she kept in her rocking chair praying and knitting, and how she would say each of our names. She was a gift.
Ellen’s experience of grandparents stands at the opposite extreme of mine. Not only were Ellen’s grandparents involved, she saw them at least once a week and talked to them practically every day as a child, if not in person, over ham radio (which saved on phone charges). She spent many weekends with them. Even after Ellen was older and moved into my area, her grandparents followed. When I started dating Ellen, certainly my experience and understanding of grandparents changed. I was introduced to the weekly Sunday meals at “Nannie and Grandpa’s”. They were quite generous to me as a newcomer and if they had an ounce suspicion about me they didn’t let on. I remember those many Sunday meals, each of us in our places, Grandpa’s exuberance and Nannie’s balance to it, the genuine interest each had in the others, and their love and support of all their grand- and great-grandchildren. Vicariously, they became my grandparents. I’m so glad my own children had a chance to know them. They were a gift.
Though we had been away in another state for four years after our marriage, Ellen and I found support from our local church. When we had two babes under a year old, Ellen’s mom was there for us at each birth, using up her time off work (plus some FMLA) to care for all of us. In her wake, my mother would arrive, but given the distance, we had to rely on others. I don’t know what we would have done without adoptive Aunt Darlene and Uncle Don as people we could count on in the absence of our immediate families. They were a true example of what the church family is meant to be. Though we would make frequent trips north to visit our families over those years, we couldn’t have done it without the Church, that family of families instituted by Christ. They were a gift.
As the Body of Christ, I think we still struggle to understand what it means to be family to one another. Many are sitting just a pew away from each other on Sunday and remain practical strangers. We are called to be more to one another. Brother and sister are not terms we should use lightly as Christians, but we do – or we don’t use them at all anymore. There’s something for us to live up to in that Christ has designated us part of his family, for each other’s sake. I am reminded of a fellow parishioner who said that he sat behind the same mother and children for many Sundays. One day the mother was having difficulty with the older children and she needed a hand because hers were occupied by her newborn. My friend, knowing her barely well enough from those many Sundays said. Do you need me to hold him for you? Her response: “Would you? Please!” She was relieved, and he was blessed. This is what a family does. They are a gift.
Eventually, we moved back to my hometown. Both my parents and Ellen’s were nearby and an integral part of their grandchildren’s lives. Having these relationships was important to us, and so good and helpful for us as a developing family. I realize that many have very different experiences with and without grandparent involvement. What I do know is that my parents mostly did it on their own without the rest of their families nearby while Ellen’s family had the involvement of relatives, most especially grandparents. Because of proximity, my parents were able to give to their children’s children something they did not have, a grand-relationship. Though my parents have passed, Ellen’s parents are still with us – next door! Though hampered by a pandemic, they are still part of my children’s and grandchildren’s lives, even if for the sake of their health it’s limited. They are a gift.
Looking back, I don’t know where we would be without such grand people in our lives in any degree. Though true grandparent relationships are unique, I would encourage all of us as brothers and sisters in the Lord to break out of our pews to help those families that may be far from their own. In the church or elsewhere, it’s awkward and difficult to forge those kind of relationships, but we are a family. Are we willing and able to open the doors of our homes to those who could a mentor or just a friend? I can attest to the serious difficulty so many couples have finding a suitable godparent for their children because their families have none to offer. Perhaps you could be that godparent when the time comes because of your own efforts to be for them the family they needed. What a gift that would be.
What is your experience of grandparents? What do you remember of those “grand” people in your life? How are you helping to make the church a family of families? Let us know in the comments section. Click like and share on content that appeals to you and let us know what you’d like to see covered here.