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by Steve Vernon
Each year since 1979, on the first Sunday after Labor Day, an often-overlooked segment of the population is celebrated in the United States. This date was designated as National Grandparents Day by the Carter administration, thanks to the efforts of a woman named Marian McQuade. Marian served as a commissioner on the Board of Aging and Nursing Homes for the state of West Virginia, and had lobbied for her state to set aside a day to recognize the importance of grandparents. Her efforts reached a national level, and a few years after she began championing this cause, she got what so many grandparents have appreciated since the invention of the telephone: a simple phone call. The fact that this call came from the White House to inform her that a bill was being signed to establish a national holiday honoring grandparents could only have added to her delight.
As difficult as it may be to believe, until that point, there had been no official day of recognition set aside for the millions of grandmas and grandpas who contribute so much to the structure of American families.
Perhaps that isn’t a difficult thing to imagine, after all. There is a tendency in our youth-obsessed culture to relegate the elderly to the collective background, if not dismiss their presence entirely.
Our first memories of our grandparents may be shaped by the fact that many parents through the years have confused the term “grandmother” with “free babysitter.” As we get older, grandparents are often seen as the people who send us birthday cards with a ten-dollar bill stuffed inside, or the source of extra presents around the holidays. They become a wellspring of get-out-of-jail-free cards when they divulge that our father also once tried to trade his little sister for a puppy. Later in life, we rely upon grandparents for baked goodies, lovingly prepared and sent in a box straight to our dorm room, removing the need to drive a whole hour to visit them. Said box might also contain another ten-dollar bill (feel free to adjust this amount for inflation, depending on your generation).
For most of us, grandparents will always represent gifts, favors and pinched cheeks. Sadly, we often don’t find the time to learn more about them until it is too late. Obituaries tell us that they were captains of industry, poets, bowlers of perfect games, military heroes, teachers of the year, inventors, civic leaders, award winners and champions of causes.
We try to remember if they ever told us of their accomplishments, then realize that they were too busy listening to us talk about our own. Perhaps they spent a lot of their time listening — for a “thank you,” a knock on the door or a phone call. Listening, perhaps, for an invitation to babysit their great-grandchildren, aware that the only payment they will get for their services is a chance to see you, and perhaps to tell your daughter that you also once tried to launch the cat into space with a bottle rocket (off the roof, no less).
Just as Marian McQuade listened when she got that phone call 36 years ago. By the way, she did get a chance to reap the benefits of her work. When she died at the age of 91, she had 43 grandchildren, more than enough, one hopes, to supply her with regular calls and visits.
Stephen Vernon is a free-lance writer whose grandmother just celebrated her 104th birthday.