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My mother-in-law died in January. Grada Johanna Voortman-Rietema blew out the candles on her 102nd birthday cake, rose from her chair, and fell awkwardly to the floor. She broke her hip and never recovered, slipping into a coma and dying one week later. She was the last one of our parents to “pass” — as more and more people today are inclined to say.
With her passing, my wife, Judy, and I assumed a new place in the generations that constitute our family. For the past twenty years, we have found ourselves between generations, celebrating the birth of grandchildren and attending to the decline of parents. At every opportunity — birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays –we have brought our energetic grandchildren to the feet of their enervated great grandparents and have watched with sweet sorrow as the new generation moved in ever wider circles and the old generation moved in ever smaller ones.
Our hearts swelled the first time we saw our grandchildren roll over and then again when we saw them crawl. We praised them the first time they stood alongside the couch and took their first steps. We marked the first day they went off to kindergarten and eagerly awaited stories of their emerging friendships. We encouraged them to do well in school, and we warned them to drive carefully after they acquired their licenses. We celebrated each expansion of the circle because they were taking their place in the wider world and becoming what God created them to be, and we prayed for their safety in this wider world beyond our control.
At the same time, our hearts ached when we saw our parents sell their home and select only their most treasured belongings to furnish two small rooms in a retirement facility. We set the remainder of their belongings on tables and stood by silently as strangers picked them over and hunted for bargains. I remember when one bargain hunter came up to me holding a small, Delft-blue ashtray with a silver cradle designed to hold a single cigarette. It was marked three dollars, and she wanted to know whether I would sell it for a dollar. In a flash of memory, I saw it sitting on my Grandmother Boogaart’s table in the living room of her tiny, upstairs apartment. Somehow it had survived the break-up of her household and found its way to my parents. I slipped it into my pocket and told her it was not for sale.
We watched as our parents’ hearing failed, and they found it harder to converse; as their eyes dimmed, and they found it harder to read; as their joints stiffened, and they found it harder to walk. We lamented each contraction of the circle. People who once moved easily and widely through the world ended up sitting in lazy-boy recliners and looking out the window at the birds devouring seeds at the feeder and flying away.
No experience in life was richer than that of bringing our grandchildren to play at the feet of their great grandparents and watching their joy in being together and hearing the stories from their past. The love exchange was tangible; you could feel it flowing from old hearts inexhaustible to young hearts insatiable. Our grandchildren drank in the presence of their great grandparents as if they were living water.
Judy and I now have assumed our parents’ place in the family and our circle is contracting. I gave up running five years ago because I wanted to spare my knees for hiking. I cannot repair the flashing on my chimney because I no longer trust my balance on the high roof. Body parts that I once took for granted now announce their presence and demand my attention. I visit my family doctor so often, and we have such intimate conversations that I feel obligated to respond in some way, perhaps invite him to dinner or at least to share two fingers of scotch with him.
Our children are watchful, not yet intervening in our lives. Last winter after a heavy snowfall just before New Year’s Day, I went outside to shovel the driveway. My son and twin grandsons visiting from Canada for the holidays suddenly appeared to help me clear the snow. It was one of those ambiguous moments in life that you have to treasure. I was both indignant — I have had a few health scares but I am still perfectly capable of shoveling my own driveway — and delighted. I am not alone as the weight of my everyday tasks becomes heavier and heavier. My heart was strangely warmed.
I have always been fascinated by the Israelite stories of elderly parents blessing their children and grandchildren. The faithful in Israel believed that God had anointed families with particular gifts for the enhancement of all people, that God had blessed them to be a blessing (Genesis 12). These gifts were powers that inhered in the family and were employed in the world — wisdom, compassion, creativity, fortitude, and delight (Isaiah 11:2). Parents developed various rituals in order to nurture these gifts and pass them on to their children and grandchildren, chief among them was the patriarch at the end of his life laying his hands on his children and grandchildren and pronouncing a benediction (Isaac in Genesis 27; Jacob in Genesis 48-49; also Moses blessing all the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 33.)
The faithful in the early church had a similar understanding of blessing. They believed that God had formed them as diverse people to be one family and that God had anointed them at Pentecost with spiritual powers to heal a broken world — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The faithful in the early church structured their life together in order to pass on the divine blessing through various rituals: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, telling stories of faith, catechism (oral instruction), and benedictions.
The various biblical accounts of blessing have helped me to understand better my place in the family since the passing of my parents. I need to be more intentional in my relationship with my children and grandchildren and to understand that our time together is a form of worship. While my circle is slowly contracting, I have received gifts and have exercised power in my life. And the greatest of these is love. I need to love my children and grandchildren, tell them the love stories of their ancestors, and trust that the Spirit will infuse my blessings with power so that they can carry the love of God into the future.