There are more grandparents per child than at any other time in history. There are more grandparents in the United States (about a million) who are primary caregivers for their grandchildren. And recently, I have noticed more children being brought to church by their grandparents. In other words, the world of grandparenting in both church and society is changing. And most of it is for the good, especially for us who now list “grandparent” as one of our treasured roles.
There is no simple way to identify grandparents. Some are old and some are not. Some are fragile while some are sprite and energetic. Some are economically secure and others struggle. Some are active and dedicated Christians, some reside in the camp of agnostics and atheists. No one-size fits all. But there is one thing, I believe, that often unites all grandparents: the initial feeling of holding one’s new grandchild, and that’s what I want to focus on here. I add that while the feeling is fleeting, like most feelings, it makes an indelible mark on our memories and forms the foundation of a lifelong love affair between grandparent and child.
Let’s reflect on three aspects of that feeling. I will speak personally here but I think my reaction is fairly commonplace. This feeling is also experienced in the birth (or adoption) of one’s own, but there’s something different with grandchildren. I think it has to do with distance. If I hold an object too close, it becomes blurry and unfocused. Grandchildren are distanced just right for a clearer view.
First, when I hold my new grandchild, I feel like I am touching my own life extending into the distant future. I am not just a past or a present, but very tangibly, a blessed future. I dwell in a place where time stretches out to what seems an infinite horizon. As H. G. Wells put it so well, “The shape of things to come.” My life is not just my own but it sits in something far greater and far more significant in the mystery of time. My grandchildren escort me ahead.
Second, because grandchildren come not from my own activity, they can be seen more fully as the gift they are. Life is always a gift from God. But as I grow older, I appreciate this more. This gifted aspect of life pours out of the tiny bodies of grandchildren into the hands and hearts of grandparents.
Finally, grandparent love is often very altruistic, benevolent, and caring. We can relate to the new life in our arms with a genuine freedom from the traps of self-interest, over-protectionism, or a need to control the child. In other words, grandparents may have more of a capacity to freely love grandchildren than even parents. A sign of this is when we truly play with them. They feel the freedom to be just themselves and so do we, a true embodiment of God’s love for all of us. In a sense, grandparents become sacraments of God’s abiding, deeply loving presence.