What's Grand about Grandparents

St. Jerome once praised her as “the glorious tree from which bloomed a twig under divine influence” and “the happy mother of mothers, from whose pure womb came forth the shining temple of God.”

She is, of course, St. Anne, long venerated by the Church as the mother of Mary and maternal grandmother of Jesus Christ. Along with her husband, St. Joachim, this holiest of grandmothers can be a valuable role model for modern-day grandparents. There's no better time than the couple's feast day, July 26, to consider how.

“Today's grandparents often are the ones who pass on Catholic tradition and teaching to their grandchildren,” says Father Marc Bergeron, pastor of St. Anne Parish and Shrine in Fall River, Mass. “St. Anne can be a great means of help and example for them.”

Father Bergeron points out that, in many families, particularly those torn apart by divorce, grandparents are called upon to play an especially significant role in their grandchildren's faith formation.

“Grandparents usually have more free time,” he explains. “And that's important because one of the scarcest commodities in today's world is time.”

Among his own parishioners, Father Bergeron notices that, especially when troubled parents neglect their children's religious education, grandparents are instrumental in teaching their grandchildren the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.

“A grandmother is a likely candidate for teaching children their prayers, for taking them on a tour around the church and explaining what everything is. Even if the parents don't, she can bring her grandchildren to Mass on Sundays and take them along on visits to the Blessed Sacrament as well.”

When talking about grandmothers, Father Bergeron likes to recall a list he once read of the unique characteristics that make grandmothers special.

“It said grandmothers are special because ‘they read the whole book without skipping any pages,' and that's just it. Grandmothers have the time to spend with their grandchildren and that makes them powerful influences in their grandchildren's lives.”

Beautiful Bond

Angela Ward of Longview, Texas, knows firsthand about the positive power and influence a loving grandmother can have on extended family members. She grew up enjoying a special relationship with her grandmother, 90-year-old Mary Carmel Sudela Krovontka, a mother of five, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of 11.

“When I was a very small girl and knew my grandmother was coming up for the day, I'd get a little chair and sit in the front yard to wait for her so that I could be the first person to greet her,” she recalls.

Now a mother of three children herself, Ward credits her Grandma “Carmel” with establishing a strong connection and sense of family among extended family members.

“She did so much to provide me with a warm network of support during my childhood years,” says Ward. “I was never part of simply a nuclear family but of a much larger family of aunts, uncles and cousins. I saw all these people regularly because my grandmother provided the place, the food and the invitations for us to get together.”

‘Grandmothers read the whole book without skipping any pages.’

Like many grandmothers, preparing food — and lots of it — is one way Grandma “Carmel” has always demonstrated unconditional love for her family.

“She cooked constantly and would do her best to learn the favorite foods of any new family member,” says Ward. “She made it clear that everyone was always welcome at her house. Not just her grandchildren, but their friends, their spouses and their children.”

Ward believes that part of what made her grandmother's role special is the fact that she had fewer parental responsibilities.

“Grandmothers have the same unconditional love for their grandchildren that mothers have,” she adds. “And there's no pressure to provide for the children financially or to discipline them, or monitor their schoolwork or anything like that. Grandmothers can simply rejoice in their grandchildren, enjoying them to the fullest.”

Distance Education

Carole Kastigar, author of For Our Children's Children: Reflections on Being a Grandparent (Living the Good News, 1998), echoes Ward's thoughts.

“There is a spiritual connection between a grandparent and grandchild that is unique,” she explains. “It's very different from being a parent. When I became a grandmother, I felt an instant, vital connection that's hard to put into words but still is very real.”

Kastigar notes that, in contrast to past generations, many of today's grandparents live far away from their grandchildren. She emphasizes, however, that physical distance doesn't have to separate grandparents from their grandchildren.

“Modern life seems to have a frenetic pace for many parents and children today, but grandparents are usually retired and have more free time,” says Kastigar. “They have already lived through many hardships and now there is an easier gait to their lives.”

In fact, Kastigar points out, one of the most important things a grandmother can do for her grandchild is to provide a familiar, comfortable place to visit and an opportunity to enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle.

“We can give them space and time, a nothingness where they are not hassled with responsibilities,” she explains. “When we do normal things together, like make bread or hammer a nail, it seems like magic because we are sharing a special time together.”

For those who live far away from their grandchildren, Kastigar recommends making frequent use of phone calls and email, but she is also a firm believer in the unique value of handwritten letters. For example, she recommends that grandparents commemorate special events in their grandchildren's lives by sending written memoirs of similar events in their own lives.

“If a grandchild receives First Communion, a grandmother can write down a one-page description of receiving her First Communion years ago and send it to her grandchild,” says Kastigar. “Even without a special occasion, short handwritten memories of ‘My Father,’ ‘When Grandma and Grandpa Got Married’ or ‘My First Time at Camp’ can become family treasures.”

Kastigar adds that it's not only grandchildren who stand to benefit from a grandparent-grandchild relationship. Through a connection with their grandchildren, many grandparents find new vitality and motivation for self-improvement. They can also find appreciation and a deep sense of their own value.

“There's a sense of understanding and a deep bond with grandchildren,” says Kastigar. “We are loved unconditionally just because we are there. We didn't do anything to earn it. It's a gift.”

Danielle Bean writes from Center Harbor, New Hampshire.