I am a big believer in the importance of extended family: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and in-laws. When I graduated from seminary at Southern Methodist University I could have gone many places to pursue my ministry. The Pacific Northwest had a shortage of Methodist pastors and was advertising. Texas would have been a really good place to put down roots as Texas Methodism is like nowhere else. But I returned to Missouri for one basic reason: to be close to Lynda’s and my parents. We wanted our children to grow up having as good of a relationship with their grandparents as we did with ours. And we wanted to be with our parents as long as possible.
Both Lynda and I had close relationships with our grandparents. Mine lived in Neosho, and hers lived in Southwest City. We both consider time spent with grandparents was critical in having a happy childhood. Lynda’s father died two years after our second child was born, so, unfortunately, our kids didn’t get to know their maternal grandfather. But otherwise, both of our kids got to spend a great deal of time with their grandparents. My parents and Lynda’s mother were excellent grandparents who loved their grandchildren. And our kids loved visiting them. They both look back fondly at their grandparents who have all passed away. How does having grandparents actively present in your children’s lives matter? It gives them a sense of their family history, family values, why their parents turned out the way they did, and grandparents can reinforce their parents in passing on of family values. My father’s amazing story of being shot down over France, hidden by the French Underground, the capture by the Gestapo in his escape attempt, the interrogation and torture in the notorious Fresne Prison in Paris, being a prisoner of war for two years in Stalag Luft 1 and then being liberated by the Russians and then by Jimmy Doolittle is one they are both immensely proud of. My children have a unique connection to the second World War that they, in turn, will pass on to their children. Extended family can give us a sense of history and our place within it.
Over the past five years, I have been reconnecting with my favorite cousin who lives in California. For forty years we had only seen each other once in 1987. I think we both realized that we needed to stay in touch even though our parents had died. She and her husband have visited Missouri twice, and we have been to see her and her husband twice. We plan on keeping our visits up as long as we can. Her parents were my favorite aunt and uncle. Growing up we were together often. Now that we are both in our late 60’s, this sense of family has become more important.
Not too long ago one’s extended family lived nearby and were active in helping to raise children. Then Americans moved away from their families to find good jobs, and that sense of connection to extended family was frayed. Both Lynda and I believe that extended family is extremely important. Now that we are the oldest members we want to spend time with our kids and their children. It takes some effort to do that as our children live in Kansas and Michigan now but we treasure our time with them. We hope that our grandkids will love us as we loved our grandparents. The only way that will happen is if we make time for it.
Mark Mildren, retired Methodist minister, is the father of two and grandfather of three. He serves as the faith-community liaison for Good Dads and can be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org