Grace in Grandparenting

My mom’s parents died when she was very young, and so the only grandparents I […]

Carrie Willard / 10.15.18

My mom’s parents died when she was very young, and so the only grandparents I knew as a child were my father’s parents, who lived in the same town that we did. They were gracious babysitters, but my grandmother’s quirks were difficult, and they only got more challenging after my grandfather died when I was twelve years old. Her quirks weren’t the fun, sweet type — she was no Rose Nylund on the Golden Girls. She wasn’t particularly entertaining in the way that some grandmothers defy convention and start getting tattoos in their eighth decade. She was more just…difficult.

She had some strict nutritional guidelines, formed by pseudo-science and a terrible book called “Let’s Get Well” by Adelle Davis. Davis’ argument was that through self-control (oh no) and vitamin supplements (oh no no no), a person could live a long, healthy life. When Davis herself got sick and died of cancer in her seventies, she blamed the junk food she ate as a teenager before she knew not to eat it. My grandmother took “Let’s Get Well” as her gospel, and Adelle Davis as her savior.

My grandmother’s law-making was mostly in the nutritional realm (“If it tastes good, spit it out”). But she also extended it to such maxims as “whistling in the house is bad manners” and “everything in the National Enquirer is true, because they’ve been sued so many times.” She was a die-hard Jeopardy! fan in the era before DVRs were commonplace, and so she once dropped my brother and me off at a piano lesson an hour early so she could get back to Alex Trebec. She would often phrase her “advice” in the form of a question, usually sounding something like, “You don’t use Crest toothpaste, do you?” Her tone would suggest that you’d just injected meth directly into your eyeball in her garage before coming in the house. Everything could be solved with vitamin supplements, which meant that her house had the distinct fragrance of a GNC store. Everything from cancer to AIDS to depression could be solved with more vitamins, which did not explain why she was so grouchy all of the time.

When I went to visit friends’ grandmothers at their houses, they would offer me candy out of a decorative bowl, and I would be nervous that it was some kind of candid-camera trick. Was someone watching, and would they smack it out of my hand as soon as they realized what was happening? Grandmothers were not, in my world, sources of sweet treats.

When my parents and in-laws became grandparents, even before my husband and I had our children, we saw a different side of grandparenting. My oldest son was born just six weeks before my father-in-law died after living with dementia for several years. We flew in for the funeral with this new baby and all the gear we hadn’t yet figured out how to use, and some of my sweetest memories of that time are my mother-in-law rocking my infant son to sleep.

My parents have taken the grandparent-as-fan-club to a new level. They were re-christened as “Mema and Papa” by the oldest grandchildren in the family, and those names have stuck. My dad is now affectionately known as “Papa Razzi” (paparazzi) for all of the photos he takes of his grandchildren. He played Amateur Announcer at my nieces’ high school volleyball matches, making up outlandish commentary to highlight his granddaughters’ strong plays. My son has named his coziest stuffed animal the “Mema Puppy” after my mom, and the Mema Puppy is, like my mom, quiet and cozy.

At the recent Mockingbird Conference in Oklahoma City, Dr. Steven Paulson reminded us how difficult it can be to teach grace to our children, especially when we, as parents, are responsible for laying down the law. We are Moses to our children, he said, and it is our responsibility to teach our children the rules of how to be in the world. “The main way that faith passes through generations,” Dr. Paulson told us, “is through grandmothers. Grandmothers are the conduit of the Gospel.”

As a parent, I’m grateful for all the other Moses figures in our children’s lives — those teachers and coaches and den leaders who help us raise up our children to act a little bit less like the apes they sometimes act like they were born to be, by helping us pass along the laws and rules of life to them. But we are so, so grateful for the message of grace from grandparents.

This message is especially important in a world that doesn’t seem to value grandmothers much. I told my therapist that it’s hard to navigate the world as a mother when everything about moms is uncool — mom jeans, mom cars, and moms not even allowed to do The Floss. I said to my therapist that by the sounds of things in popular culture, there’s nothing worse than being a mom. My therapist, several years my senior, said, “No. Grandma is worse.” She had a point: granny cars, grandma glasses — even with the resurgence of the popularity of the always-amazing Golden Girls, grandmas are even less cool than moms.

I heard an interview once with the actresses who played the Golden Girls. They said that the character of Sophia Petrillo, played by Estelle Getty, was particularly attractive to children. She was physically smaller than the rest of the “girls,” of course, and after suffering from a stroke and had to be cared for by her daughter, Dorothy, the rest of the characters treated her a bit like a child. She would often act out in “naughty” ways, brazenly insulting Blanche’s promiscuity, Rose’s innocence, and even her own daughter’s height. I think the mafia jokes probably went over the heads of most of the kids in the audience, but nonetheless they related to her as the smallest member of the cast, and the one with the least amount of household power.

This might be precisely why grandmothers are so important in delivering gospel grace to their imperfect (but perfect in their eyes) grandchildren. They have Mom Goggles times a million for their grandchildren. They don’t have a lot of power in the world, or at least in this country. For every Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there are a hundred terrible memes and goofy greeting cards, seeming to try to put older women in their place among the uncool and unpowerful. They don’t have the same responsibility of parents, who are responsible for delivering the law to their children. Grandmothers might even have a tiny bit of an innocent vendetta to play out on their own children who misbehaved in their youth. (Oh, your mother nearly killed me when she was a teenager. We’re going to show her a thing or two. Yes, you MAY have two brownies before bed. Wash it down with a little coffee, dear.) Who better to deliver the message of grace and mercy and forgiveness to the littlest and least among us?

You might read this as an undisguised ploy to get my parents to move closer to us. You wouldn’t be wrong. You might read this with some sadness that your children don’t have grandparents in their lives, or sadness that you’re a grandparent who doesn’t have a great relationship with your grandchildren. Take heart. Remember that my own grandmother wasn’t exactly a fount of gospel grace, and somehow the rest of the grace-givers and Gospel-tellers in my life passed it along to me. But I think if there’s anything this world needs, it’s grandparenting, and I don’t think you need to rely on biological ties to make that happen.