Monday, October 27, 2008

The Glory of Grandparents

“Guess what? We had Coke and biscuits for breakfast.”

Charlie, my firstborn, was eight. His birthday present from my mother was an airplane trip with her to Smithfield, North Carolina, the small town where her brother lived. The breakfast menu, as astonished Charlie reported to his younger, envious brothers, had been approved by the same woman who had insisted on at least two vegetables at every meal when I was growing up. Years later, Charlie still talks about the magic of that trip, how special and grown up he felt, and how much fun he had with his Grandma.

I thought about that journey last week when Barack Obama left the campaign trail to visit Toot, his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham. He mentioned Mrs. Dunham several times during the campaign, but most poignantly during his nomination acceptance speech in August. “Thank you to my grandmother, who helped raise me and is sitting in Hawaii somewhere right now because she can’t travel, but who poured everything she had into me and who helped me become the man I am today. Tonight is for her.”

None of my grandparents were alive by the time I was born. Three of the four were immigrants and I always wished I’d had the opportunity to talk to them about their experiences coming to this country, leaving behind everything and everyone they had known. The heroism of their decisions is still staggering to me. As a creature of habit, I often have self-doubt that I would have had the courage to leave my parents and family at a young age, in full knowledge that I would never see them again. But of course, their bravery made my life possible.

Barack Obama credits his grandparents for raising him for much of his childhood. His experience is not unique. According to a joint study of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Brookdale Foundation Group, Casey Family Programs, Child Welfare League of America, Children's Defense Fund, and Generations United, “more than six million children - approximately 1 in 12 - are living in households headed by grandparents (4.5 million children) or other relatives (1.5 million children). In many of these homes, grandparents (approximately 2.4 million) and other relatives are taking on primary responsibility for the children’s needs.” It’s a growing problem.

Unconditional love and acceptance is the hallmark of parenting, but most especially of grandparenting. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who assume parenting responsibilities at a time when retirement looms. But to all grandparents, whose love and laughter enrich our children’s lives, we are eternally grateful.

The Hebrew expression, L’dor va Dor, means from one generation to the next. It refers to the generational continuity of traditions and knowledge, just like Madelyn Dunham passed on her values and work ethic to Barack Obama. This is what grandparents have to offer to our children. And for that, we say, Amen.

Please share a favorite story of your own grandparents.

Evelyn David


  1. We lived across the street from my mother's parents, so I spent more than half of my childhood at their house. Grandpa was a stoic German who took me on car rides just to bring home a new puppy or kitty. Grandma was mostly Celtic and very gregarious. People would drop in at their house constantly, I mean, with suitcases in hand, and she'd always have the coffee pot on and dig something out of the freezer to feed them (in the days before microwaves, folks).

    My favorite "story" is really just a repeating memory of evenings spent at their house when she had visitors. I'd sit on the floor next to her chair and she'd stroke my hair and rub my shoulders while she held court, telling stories of her youth, the day's events, etc. She taught me how to tell a story in a most organic way, by massaging the words into me.

  2. I had to grandparents in my life. My mom's mom always wore dresses, nylons and if she was going out, hat and gloves. Even at the beach she and my grandpa wore there Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes as they sat on a blanket under their beach umbrella. We have home movies of this. Of course all the kids were in bathing suits.

    My dad's mom was a bit more down to earth, primarily because she and that grandpa (due to his drinking) didn't have much money. But she sure was fun to visit. She could figure out more things to do that were lots of fun and didn't cost a thing. They moved a lot and lived in fun places, on the desert in a cabin in the mountains. (Probably more fun to us than my grandma.)

  3. There's a memorial page hosted by the American Cancer Society if anyone wants to leave their thoughts or make a donation in her memory.