Remembering Grandparents

By Allison Gilbert
A Web Exclusive, December 4, 2006

child holding grandparent's handThere are a lot of jobs we moms have: making sure our kids succeed in school, ensuring they develop the social discipline to be a good friend, and ironically, scheduling unscheduled time into our hectic calendars so they can develop their creativity as well. For many mothers though, there is another albeit rarely discussed item on our priority list—keeping our own parents’ memory alive for our children.

My son Jake is six and my daughter Lexi is four. They will never get to know their maternal grandparents; my parents have both passed away. Their absence has revolutionized my relationship with my children. I not only consciously try to work my parents into conversation, but I have also begun to think proactively—and often intensely—about my own legacy and the lessons I am passing along to my children. I work harder to ensure I am creating the kind of memories I want to be remembered by. And I am not alone.

Emmy award-winning actor Dennis Franz is one of the long string of people I have interviewed about how he is passing on his parents memories to his children. He’s kept audio recordings his parents made on a trip to the Empire State building when he was five or six, and he also saved some of their little collectibles. “Though I miss my parents dearly, I’m so glad that I miss them. If I didn’t, it would mean that they didn’t have as much of an impact on my life as they do. I would like to have the same sort of impact on our children.”

For political icon Geraldine Ferraro, it’s also important that her children remember her parents. Her kids got to know her mother, but her father died when she was just eight years old. “You hope when you bury a parent, whatever strands you got from them, you’ll transfer to your children. You’ll bring your children up knowing about your relationship with your own parents. I think that’s important to do.”

Still for others, what needs to be passed down are simple, memory-making rituals. Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, daughter of music legend Johnny Cash, says that listening to her father’s music in a personal way has become important for her family to do. “I played Ballads of the True West for my seven-year-old son who never heard it, and said, “Listen to this great song.” Now he’s really into it—it’s a way to keep him connected with his grandpa.”

The collective honesty of so many people I have talked to has allowed me to glean some tips for keeping your parents’ memory alive for your children:

  1. Show Photos: When you celebrate your child’s birthday, show them pictures of their grandparents at their previous parties and even at their birth. Incorporate photos into family gatherings—perhaps at your next Thanksgiving dinner pass around favorite pictures of them at past get-togethers.
  2. Talk Openly: Be sure to share favorite age-appropriate stories about your parents—and add to them as they get older. For example, my mother loved nuts. She was a nut-a-holic. When my children dig into a can of walnuts in our house, I always say, ‘Grandma Lynn loved nuts.’ Or, when my kids play with their building blocks, I tell stories about how Grandpa Sidney was an architect and he designed buildings too. It’s a little something that makes my parents a little more real.
  3. Live Traditions: If your parents always did something special for your birthday or made holidays unique in some way—why not incorporate those same traditions into your family plans—and don’t forget to tell them their grandma or grandpa did “it” this way too. One special summer tradition I shared with my dad was going to Tanglewood, an outdoor concert space in Massachusetts. My father loved listening to classical music. When my kids are old enough I will bring them there for their first, informal classical music appreciation session, and I will tell them, “Grandpa Sidney loved it here.”
  4. Give Heirlooms: Nearly every person I interviewed kept mementoes from their parents that will be passed along to their children one day, if they haven’t done so already. Whether you save pieces of jewelry, collectibles, clothing (or in one case dish rags!) don’t throw anything away you think could help your children know their grandparents. If you do part with them, your children will have fewer tangible things to remind them of their grandparents.
  5. Allow Sadness: We all agree we want our children to be able to give and receive love. In that case, I think it’s okay to let them see you get upset about missing your parents. You loved your mommy and daddy too. Permit yourself to experience the pain that crops up from time to time—and allow it to be a lesson in caring—that it’s okay to show feelings, and that grown-ups cry too.

And here is my favorite bit of feel-good wisdom, taken from actress and author Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of writer Ernest Hemingway: “Even though I lost my parents young and that was difficult, I know that they gave me what I needed for my lifetime. Everything they taught me, good and bad, was something I could use for my well-being and my parenting.”

Allison Gilbert is an Emmy award-winning journalist and author of the newly released book Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents. (Seal Press, December 2006) Always Too Soon is a collection of intimate interviews with celebrities and others about the emotional impact of losing their parents. Ms. Gilbert also co-edited the book, Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11. The book features interviews with such journalists as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Larry King. A portion of the royalties from the sale of Always Too Soon will be donated to The Ovarian Cancer Research Fund and The LUNGevity Foundation. Please visit for more information.

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