The Origins of Grandparents Day

Many scoff at non-major holidays as random, for-profit celebrations made-up by greeting card companies, but Grandparents’ Day, always observed on the Sunday after Labor Day, is no such holiday. President Jimmy Carter enacted the first Grandparents Day in 1978, but Jacob Reingold and Marian McQuade were the selfless advocates who worked behind-the-scenes to make Grandparents Day possible in the United States.

While it is true that Poland first celebrated grandmothers in 1965 (Dzień Babci), after the United States began the secular tradition of celebrating all grandparents, Mexico (Día del Abuelos), the Philippines, Canada, and others followed suit. However, not since President Obama, has there been a presidential proclamation commemorating the annual event, which is a little bit sad, especially since the guilt-inducing flower for National Grandparents Day is the forget-me-not.

Technically, I have been alive for as long as Grandparents Day has been celebrated in the United States. I was born a week after the first Grandparents Day on September 10, 1978. My paternal grandparents were born in 1925 and 1930 in Hickory County, Missouri and lived through the Great Depression as children. My grandfather John fought in World War II as a U.S. Navy gunner’s mate, and he won a Purple Heart for his valor on the beaches of Normandy. My paternal grandmother Anna Lee baked the best blackberry cobbler and fried chicken I have ever tasted, raised two sons, and was the proud matriarch that made every holiday gathering magical.

My maternal grandmother Mary Ann was born in 1930 in Christian, Kentucky; I never knew my maternal grandfather. She weathered divorce when it was exceedingly uncommon, raised three children as a single parent, and owned a small community newspaper when women publishers were rare. She nurtured my own love of writing when she gave me my first journal at age 9 and my first newspaper column at age 13.

I learned so much from my grandparents, who I routinely spent weekends and blissful childhood summer weeks with them on the farm or by the lake. When they died, the last grandparent in 2015, I lost a link to not only my family’s past, but the world’s. Suffice it to say, I miss them. I wish they could have lived to meet and know my own daughter; I was even lucky enough to know my great-grandmother Pauline, a first-generation American whose parents spoke Italian, until my early 20s.

Intergenerational relationships, especially those with grandparents, can be helpful as family structures evolve, more parents work outside the home, and divorce or parental separation rates continue to rise. Science shows us the benefits of grandparents are many: children who had high grandparental involvement demonstrated fewer emotional and behavioral problems, grandparents who routinely watch their grandchildren may live longer, and the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren continues to grow.

Not everything is rainbows and butterscotch discs, though. There are some safety risks related to grandparents who still believe the way they raised their children is fine for their grandchildren. Those conversations, of course, are on-going in any family. My husband and I had to convince our parents to get their Tdap vaccines, a three-in-one vaccine that protects newborns and young babies from diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, when our daughter was born. Thankfully, everyone agreed, though of course there may have been some grumbling.

But, like most grandparents, our parents did the right thing. And while not everyone’s experience of grandparents is happy or positive, the good ones still make pancakes, cuddle the kids, teach them card games, and give us parents a break.