When my son Lewis was a toddler, Grandpa would take him on walks around the neighborhood. The trek was always at a snail’s pace. As Lewis stopped to examine every shiny rock or bug that crossed his path, Grandpa would bend, hovering at Lewis’ side. I hold this image in my heart — this man, slowing and stooping to be near his grandchild.
Because my in-laws chose to move 1,100 miles to live near Lewis, Grandpa was there to experience his firsts: his first birthday party, first Christmas, first bicycle ride without training wheels, first trip to an amusement park, first camping experience, first soccer game and even his first year in college.
Grandpa has recently experienced some health challenges. We’re no longer celebrating Lewis’ firsts; we’re celebrating what are most likely Grandpa’s lasts: his last Christmas, his last New Year, his last birthday party. And all the while anticipating his first glimpse of heaven.
The closeness my son and my other children have had with Grandpa didn’t happen overnight. It grew step by step through intentional times of family togetherness that emphasized the needs of everyone, not just the kids.
Here are some things my family did to foster a deeper connection between our kids and our older extended family members:
We celebrated each family member’s unique identity.
Grandpa wasn’t just an old relative who showed up on weekends and holidays; he was first a person, an individual with a history, talents and a pronounced preference for sausage and sauerkraut. His identity as a marathon runner, a microwave technology scientist and a refugee from Hitler’s Germany was part of my kids’ framework for the relationship. Everyday conversations that emphasized Grandpa’s life experiences helped my boys see that old people are just that — people with a rich past who have much to offer.
Holidays were about everyone, not just the kids.
Whenever there was an event that included multiple generations, we didn’t pander to the youngest, especially not at Christmas. From choosing the menu to deciding which church service we’d attend to planning when to open gifts, the goal was togetherness and making sure everyone felt involved. And often my kids had to flex, to eat German peppernut cookies in lieu of pumpkin pie and wait till 3 in the afternoon to open gifts. Often we’d attend classical music concerts rather than seeing the latest movie because the grandparents’ preferences counted, too. Being attuned to the traditions and needs of extended family taught my kids that togetherness mattered, even though it often required sacrifice and self-discipline.
Our family valued community service together.
It wasn’t merely an annual trip to the neighborhood shelter. Grandpa and Grandma volunteered every Friday afternoon at an inner-city soup kitchen. During the summers, Lewis would serve alongside Grandpa. And if Christmas fell on a Friday? Guess what. The entire family was there scooping mounds of mashed potatoes or washing an even larger mound of dirty plates.
Today Grandpa is the one who moves at a snail’s pace. He stoops not to inspect a ladybug but to lean on his cane. A heart condition combined with a recent fall requires that he have help walking. And now I hold a new image in my heart — of Lewis slowing and stooping to listen to Grandpa as the two walk, arm in arm, down the corridor of the hospital wing.