During my formative years, I had the distinct privilege of spending time with my grandads and even one great-grandad. In the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, our pace of life and activities was very different from today. We attended school and church, but a lot of our time was centered around our home. Even more unique were our regular visits with extended family on a weekly basis. This afforded me time to be in the company of my grandparents frequently. I listened to their talk about work and how they solved problems and the things that occupied their time. I enjoyed accompanying my dad’s dad on outings to pick blackberries and then had the pleasure of helping in the process to make wine in his cellar.
My Grandpop was a nuts-and-bolts kind of man, always busy with his work as caretaker of the cemetery, keeping their only vehicle (an old Ford truck) running, and maintaining the house where he and my grandmom raised thirteen children. It was fascinating learning things from him. I would follow him around and help load coal into their furnace and collect items from the cool cellar that housed their canned vegetables and held Grandpop’s workbench. He liked to show any of us grandkids the things he did for work, as well as the projects he worked on, such as building cedar benches for anyone who wanted one and making wine from the fruits he picked. They lived a hop, skip and a jump from the monastery church and school where they walked to 6am daily Mass. By society’s standards, Pop was minimally educated and made a meager wage that kept them in the lower economic level their entire lives. The gifts we received were hand-made and simple, but lots of time was invested in being family together. I loved being in Grandpop’s shadow and considered the cemetery near their house to be the most magical place in my world with its little streams and bridges and huge fir trees and rolling hills. Amongst those resting in peace, my dad and his twelve siblings grew up under the tutelage of my grandpop’s calloused hands and the soft-spoken voice of my grandmom.
My grandmom’s parents lived just three blocks away, and my great-granddad was a successful stone mason with a shop full of heavy, rough-hewn tools that carved important information into big pieces of granite for the deceased. As an adult, I realize how fortunate I was to have enjoyed weekly visits to my great-grandparents. Great-granddad was a tall, polite, and loving man. He would sit me atop a piece of stone and include me in the conversations with my dad and other family. He had two framed pictures over the desk in his shop – the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As a kid, I always felt that they were watching me. These images hanging in a prominent place in his shop spoke volumes about the faith my great-granddad had. No matter how busy he was, he had a way of making me feel cherished when we came by. And a visit never ended until he sent us up to the house to get a drink and a slice of cake from great-grandmom.
My mom’s dad was another wonderful grandfather with whom I spent much time while growing up. (I never met my grandmom because she died suddenly only three months after my parents were married.) Pop was a tall, handsome man who always wore a suit, and I mean always! He was retired from the phone company and had raised five children through the Depression era. His parents and aunt lived with them in a small but comfortable row home. Most of my time spent with Pop was at our house where he would come most days in the afternoons and stay through dinner. Sometimes we would pick him up at his apartment and I loved seeing his stuff. He was an avid follower of the Baltimore City Fire Department and had a squawk box to hear all the fire calls. He had boxes with index cards full of information on the different fire houses, calls, and each fireman. When my mom was growing up, he would pile the kids in his car and they would go watch the firemen fight fires. He supported the firemen with visits and gifts and had a deep respect for what they did for the community. I loved sitting at his feet in our living room listening to him tell stories of growing up in Baltimore and of his family. He was a regular member at our dinner table in his later years and always took an interest in my studies and in the things I was doing.
When my parents would go away on their annual business trip, Pop would come take charge of our household. He made flapjacks for breakfast, walked me to the school bus stop and would meet me there each afternoon. I didn’t need an escort, but it was his way of sending me off. He played cards with us and told stories and made the best stew I’ve ever eaten! He made sure to remind me to say my prayers and he took us to church. Pop was present for all the holidays throughout the years, along with a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Our house was the typical gathering place for my mom’s siblings and so I guess that’s why Pop always came over. In his later years when he could no longer drive, my parents wanted him to move in with us, but he insisted on his own independence and lived out his days, until he died at 89, in his apartment. As a kid, I never thought twice about Pop always being at our home. As an adult, I look back and see the treasure I had in being loved by a man who had all the time in the world to talk. It impacted me more than I realized. Mom and dad took care of the needs of the family, but Pop took the time to share himself with me and take an interest in what I was thinking as a young girl trying to figure out what was important in life. A generation removed, Pop made it abundantly clear how important each member of the family was to him, which instilled in me a strong desire for continued close family bonds in my adult life.
I then watched how my dad became granddad to my six children. He was busy seven days a week and lots of nights running his business and providing for our family when I was a child, but as a granddad, he learned how to switch gears and devote attention to his grandchildren through time spent together. He took his role as grand patriarch seriously and lived out sharing the gospel of Jesus with all his grands in very simple but tangible ways. He was a great encourager of all the pursuits of each one and never hesitated to share his testimony of how God helped him on a daily basis to do what he was supposed to do. He shared prayers and taught them the power of talking with God all day long. And when my parents visited for two to three weeks each Christmas season, everyone could see how he laid out his days. He would be seen in a quiet chair early in the mornings with his well-worn prayer book praying his prayers. Then he and mom would attend morning Mass with any of us who would accompany them. He joined in our family prayer time and nightly Rosary.
I have also enjoyed witnessing my husband embrace the role of Pops to our sweet grandchildren. He rejoices in the gift of each one and prays daily for them to always hear and respond to God’s call on their lives. He loves playing with them and particularly sharing his love of music with them.
The treasure of knowing my granddads and being so loved by them has been a gift in my life that I know has helped me understand the love God our Father has for me. The beauty of the continuous bond from great-grandfather to grandfather to father is powerful and assures me of my heritage. The greatest lesson I learned from these loving men was to invest yourself in others and especially to build up and encourage each member. It doesn’t seem mighty or grand, but it strengthens the foundation of our lives and nurtures deep, holy growth in our specific God-ordained purpose. The richness of a grandfather’s love and care is a gift in the family. Their patriarchal leadership and security are God’s design for how families are enjoined together through the generations and meant to relate. I have had the privilege of this delightful heritage and my prayer is that it will continue to be nourished by the fathers to come in our family.
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We come in all colors, shapes, sizes. We come with many different names: Papa, Gramps, Granddaddy, Baba, Nonno or maybe even Skipper. The one thing we all share is our unconditional love for our grandchildren.
One of my earliest memories of my grandfather Tony (Gramps) was sitting on his lap as he prayed the rosary. As l tried to pull it from his hands, he clutched his beads even tighter. I guess that was my first memory of prayer. When my wife and I had our first child, Gramps told me the 3 greatest things a grandfather can give his grandchildren are love, spoiling them rotten, and memories. I cherish the memories of Gramps to this day: sleeping over at my grandparents’ house, having my picture taken with him at my First Holy Communion, cutting his grass and him giving me a quarter, him asking me to sit next to him at his and grandma’s 40th anniversary dinner, and even taking my then-fiancée when I went to shovel his snow. These are some of the memories he created for me.
My dad and father-in-law enhanced the grandfather experience for me as I watched them with our children and their cousins. Birthday parties, school plays, receiving the sacraments or graduations, grandpas were always there. At his grandkids’ Confirmations, my father-in-law would say “Another soldier for Christ”–adding more memories to my collection. l wonder what memories Jesus had of His grandfathers Joachim (the Patron Saint of Grandfathers) and Jacob, St. Joseph’s father. Did He pull on their prayer beads, sleep over at their houses, sit next to them at special occasions? As it becomes my turn to make memories, I pray to St. Joseph that my 4 precious grandchildren will have memories: a picture of us at their First Holy Communion, attending Mass together, me walking them to school or picking them up after school (well maybe after the pandemic), me telling them a corny Papa joke, them giving me a running hug, me spoiling them rotten or maybe even them tugging on my rosary. The aforementioned men have set the bar very high; it is my goal to follow in their footsteps. I remain extremely grateful every day that l have been entrusted to be the Papa of Mabel, Anna, Teddy and Lucy. In the year that Pope Francis has declared the Year of St. Joseph, my best hope would be that St. Joseph gives me the strength to teach them the ways of the Gospel and lead them down the path towards Christ.
To me St. Joseph was like an unsung hero. His devotion must have been unwavering. Asked to be the earthly father to Jesus and husband of Mary, WOW!! what a responsibility. Teaching Jesus his trade as a carpenter, teaching Him to pray, preparing Him for manhood, things that many may overlook. St. Joseph simply did the things asked of him by God. God’s love shows through in picking Joseph for this oh so important role in Jesus’ life and the life of the Church. The more I read about St Joseph, the second J of the JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) I wrote at the top of my school papers long ago, the more awesome I think he is. He did so much without questioning his role. Thank you, St Joseph, for being an inspiration and guiding light as I navigate the waters of being a grandfather.
St Joseph, pray for us (especially us grandfathers).
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Over the last several years of my life, I have read, studied, and written hundreds of pages about what Pope Francis meant when he said in Evangelii Gaudium that “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (169). However, nothing has ever taught me more about accompaniment than one of the most special people I have ever known in my life: my grandmother.
My grandmother, Edith Lauritzen, was born a second-generation Irish Catholic in 1928 in Queens, New York. She was soft-spoken but had a hearty laugh that made an appearance in most conversations. Her favorite food was Chicken Parmesan, and she taught me the first prayers I ever learned. Sometimes, my grandmother would pick my sister and me up after school and treat us to ice cream. She would ask us about our day at school, and listen generously, as if the happenings of my sister’s and my days at elementary school were the most riveting and important things she could devote her time to.
I spent a good bit of my early childhood with my grandmother, and when my grandfather passed away, she moved in with my family to a small bedroom on the first floor of our home. In our house, my grandmother was a steady presence in my life; her warmth, laughter, and joy were always a comfort. I enjoyed spending time with her and would sometimes wake up early in the morning if I heard her making her breakfast of toast and coffee in the kitchen just so that I could spend time with her.
As I grew up, our shared Catholic faith became a topic of frequent conversation. In middle and high school, I remember spending hours talking with her in her bedroom. My grandmother’s room was small, with space only for her bed, dresser, and an armchair. The feeling of my foot falling asleep sticks with me as I reflect on talking with her, as sometimes our conversations lasted hours as I sat cross-legged on her wooden floor. Beyond some vague memories of the topics of prayer, the lives of the saints, and my hopes to visit St. Peter’s basilica one day, I do not remember anything specific about the topics of conversation. Rather, what rises to the surface in my memory of those conversations with my grandmother is her listening, her interest in my thoughts, and her joyful, warm presence that created the space for me to speak up and share my insights with a woman with 65 more years of life experience. Now, I look back and know that I might have spoken with a little too much certainty about God and the things of faith, and probably mused a little too grandiosely about my reflections on what certain Gospel readings meant. However, that didn’t matter to my grandmother.
This was the gift that my grandmother gave to me: taking my faith, questions, and thoughts seriously. My grandmother could have seen my early, inexperienced love of my faith as childish or naïve. Instead, I think she saw my faith as wisdom, blooming and in process, attempting to make sense of God and life. In front of my grandmother’s armchair and unbeknownst to us both, my vocation as a theologian and woman of faith was being nurtured and cultivated.
After my first year at college, my family had to move my grandmother to an assisted living home as she needed more care than we could provide at my house. I was devastated. My home felt like it lost a little bit of warmth. However, that first summer after my freshman year of college, I made it part of my daily routine to visit my grandmother. I spent afternoons with her, listening to her thoughts and reflections on her life, her stories about growing up with the other children in her neighborhood in Queens, and her relationship with my grandfather. We laughed as she told stories about living in New York, what it was like to go to Mass in Latin, and why she loved St. Thérèse (her favorite saint).
Before moving to the assisted living home, my grandmother had never lived away from home, so sometimes, she would cry. I learned in those moments that what was important was not me offering some nugget of wisdom from our faith that would help her to reframe her thinking, but for me to be there, hold her hand, and be present. In the days after those afternoons where there were more tears than laughter in her voice, I would make sure to bring her a cup of chocolate ice cream to lift her spirits. It did not take long for me to realize it was now my turn to accompany my grandmother, just as she had accompanied me in my childhood and teenage years.
Two summers later, my grandmother passed away. It was one of the most painful days of my life. At the same time, I was overjoyed at the thought of my grandmother getting to experience something so much better than our hours of conversation together about our faith: God himself. At my grandmother’s funeral Mass, one of the hymns my family selected was “O God Beyond All Praising.” While the entire hymn is a perfect way to describe the gift that my grandmother was to everyone she encountered, the words of the second verse have always particularly stuck out to me when I think about her:
“The flower of earthly splendor
in time must surely die,
its fragile bloom surrender
to you the Lord most high;
but hidden from all nature
the eternal seed is sown -
though small in mortal stature,
to heaven's garden grown”
In reflecting upon my relationship with my grandmother, I think about how her accompaniment of me planted seeds in my life that continue to bloom and grow. Though she was older and weaker, my grandmother passed on to me the gift of faith, a gift that is an eternal reality that we share, and that I hope will bring us together in the next life. Even when my faith was more composed of immature certainty and over-zealous explanations of Scripture, my grandmother saw more than that. And, when it was my turn to accompany my grandmother in the last years of her life, she gave me the gift of continuing to grow these seeds of faith through my own cultivation of patient listening and presence.
For me, my grandmother is a model of accompaniment, and was a witness to what Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium of the listening and patience required in accompaniment: “Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives (171).” Through my grandmother’s love, I learned to listen to God and respond to His love. I know the seeds of my faith are continuing to grow and bloom even after my grandmother’s death as she accompanies me with her prayers.
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Having enjoyed being a father for many years, upon learning of the impending birth of a grandchild, I looked forward eagerly to that day. (I even considered the shirt I was wearing when I heard the news to be my “lucky shirt.”) Now, about seven years later, I am truly delighted with my two lovely granddaughters, as they approach the ages of seven and three. They are beautiful in every way, but I especially appreciate the beauty of their hearts and souls. This I attribute gratefully to their mother and father and to God in His goodness.
As a grandfather, I have been fortunate to spend much time with my granddaughters both before and after the onset of the COVID pandemic. And, especially as a grandfather, I see St. Joseph as an inspirational role model. My view of St. Joseph is of a man who was comfortable and happy remaining, for the most part, in the background. He evidently found no need to be the center of attention. He simply did his work caring and providing for Mary and Jesus and likely for anyone else who came within the ambit of his responsibilities. He worked hard at his craft and traveled as necessary to keep his family safe. It seems that he did not need to say much using words. I see his example as a goal for me as a grandfather—to be there when needed, to try to promote the health, safety and general well-being of my wife, children, and grandchildren and otherwise—specifically as to grandchildren—to remain when possible in the background, with support and occasional contributions to their physical, spiritual and psychological educations.
But being a grandfather is far from only being work and encompassing responsibility. It is mostly about the joy and wonder of being together with grandchildren—to see firsthand the development of human beings gaining strength in mind, body, and soul. I imagine that St. Joseph was pleased but often surprised by the growth and development of Jesus as a child, young boy, and young man. With St. Joseph’s likely experience in mind, I can try to recognize and realize that growth and development is not necessarily predictable. I am constantly surprised by what my granddaughters can do and what they can express in words that seem beyond their years. They are most entertaining and one of a grandfather’s delightful duties is not only to be entertained but also to be able to join in the games and play activities sparked by the imagination of young children.
The great value of having the life of St. Joseph as a guide is that there is value in simple presence—being there, experiencing life with young persons, seeing the world through their eyes, noticing and appreciating the moon, stars, or sun, or the dog or cat on the street. Being with grandchildren is akin to what I have often thought about going camping—it makes simple things complicated and complicated things simple.
As I anticipate spending more time with my granddaughters, I continue to look to St. Joseph for guidance. As part of my daily prayers, I ask St. Joseph for his intercession for all of us. From his unique role in God’s plan, St. Joseph is well-situated to be an advocate for those of us still on our journeys. What better team could we find to assist us in this manner than our Blessed Mother Mary and St. Joseph? They were holy persons, who during their lives on earth experienced a full range of joys, sorrows, and challenges, and are thus in a great position to sympathize and empathize with us and to advocate for us as we try to work our ways through the many opportunities presented to us to be of service to one another.
**This post is part of our series on Fatherhood to celebrate the Year of St. Joseph. To learn more, please click here.
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