“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.