Some of my greatest childhood memories include the times when my parents allowed me to sleep over my grandmother’s house (the finished basement of my childhood home). Although it was only a few hours at a time for “Gram,” it helped shape my perspective on the important role of grandparents.
Whenever I spent the night, Gram and I did a special evening ritual. We feasted on rarities that I got only when I visited her: corn flakes in milk and a glass of seltzer water, both a big deal to a five-year old who got to stay up so late.
Instead of going to bed (like we were supposed to), we sat out on the stoop to catch lightening bugs. Then it was ice cream and TV time with the likes of Archie Bunker and George Jefferson.
In hindsight, Gram’s gestures of kindness seem quaint, but her time with me instilled the belief that grandparents are God’s gifts of grace and mercy to all the children of the earth.
And, for me, Gram was most certainly God’s mercy in the flesh. There was nothing I could do to anger her, and it seemed impossible to annoy her. If I pitched a fit, she gave me chewing gum. If I was unreasonable, she offered me a meatball.
She lived up to her name, Santina, which roughly translates into little saint. She embodied unconditional love when she offered her many hugs, kisses, and (if you caught her on a pension payday) pennies.
Don’t get me wrong, Gram had her scruples. She taught me how to play poker. She cursed often (usually at my uncle–her son–and at baffled game-show contestants). She warred with her next-door neighbor. She distrusted people not of Italian descent.
But in the eyes of a child, she was as perfect as the saints pictured in the little icons hanging from her bedroom mirror. She was as colorful as the rosary beads on her nightstand.
I know that there are many people in this world who do not have the same experiences with grandparents as I; but in general, I find that grandparents give all of who they are to their loved ones. These are God-in-the-flesh folks who spoil their grandchildren in season and out, and are stubborn about it too.
I had one such grandmother visit me in my church office the other day. She is a parishioner, so when she was leaving I mentioned that I hoped to see her at worship. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Yeah, maybe, but as a grandmother I’m always on call.”
Some pastors would scoff at this and give speeches about spending time with God on Sunday mornings. I would much rather this grandmother spend time with her grandchildren than deny them such loving care during a time of need.
Why go to the church to hear about the Gospel when you can be the Gospel–God’s good news–to someone who is learning what good news is in the first place?
Recently Gram turned 90, and I had the privilege of celebrating her birthday with her while visiting New York.
She has dementia so her physical motor skills, memory, and speech are impaired. Her hugs and kisses no longer come in abundance. She does not say much, and her laughter is not as boisterous. She still curses, but mostly at nurses instead of clueless game show contestants.
But even in her wheelchair, with her head tilted slightly askew, she represents the absolute grace and abundant love that God has for all of us–almost like God incarnate–and who loves like Christ loves.
As a pastor, many people ask me if I ever see or hear God. My answer, though offered tongue-in-cheek, is always the same: I have, and her name is Gram.