The Blessing of Grandparents

  • Nov 19, 2018 -
  • Tom Neal PhD
Share this story:

My paternal grandparents, Edmond and Ruth, were married for 76 years, and my grandfather died just a few weeks shy of 100 years old.  They had an immense impact on my life, and their memory lives on in my own family like an undimmed lighthouse.

These photos, taken when my son Nicholas was one year old, were taken the last time we saw them both before they developed Alzheimer’s.  When I found these pictures recently, I was flushed with a thousand emotions.  How I miss them and wish they were still here!  What I would give for another hour long phone call to hear them tell life stories, encourage us to stick to priorities, work hard, focus on family and faith.  I can hear Pop’s voice saying to me, “Family isn’t an important thing, Tommy, it’s everything,” or “Be sure to waste more time just being with your children than you spend keeping them busy.  Time wasted, hearts gained.”

As my wife and I have never lived near either of our families, I am so grateful that my own 92 year old mother lives here in New Orleans so our children get to experience how important grandparents are, see what the challenges of old age are like, and learn how to be patient with a failing memory.  But most important to me, my mom offers them a privileged opportunity to embrace my family history as their own.

When my dad was dying last Spring, my children were also able to see the painful effects of my parents’ divorce on me, my mom and my own family, as well as witness the extraordinary power of gestures of reconciliation.  In particular, I shared with them, with my mom present, a story from the final days I spent with my dad before he died.

I told them that when I went to see grandpa, I brought a photo of grandma to show him and share with him her “forgiveness, love and prayers.”  Though he was mostly non-responsive those last days because of the dementia, when I showed him the photo of my mom, and shared her message, he kept his eyes open and looked intently at it for at least a full minute.  And then he said in his faint raspy voice, “I love her forever.”  It was Easter Sunday.

In that moment, the distance between my childhood and the present moment collapsed, and a deep chasm was bridged.

I want these things to define my children’s memories.  And I want Pope Francis’ wisdom to shape their futures:

Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country. A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future.  A society that has no room for the elderly or discards them because they create problems has a deadly virus; it is torn from its roots. Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. — Pope Francis