The Role of Grandparents

By Paul Knudtson

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5)

Grandpa Eilert Knudtson with some of his grandchildren in the summer of 1957. I’m the shortest boy in the front row.

All of my grandparents had died by the time I began school in the fall of 1960. Grandma Knudtson and Grandpa Johnson died long before I was born, but  Eilert Knudtson (d. Mar 10, 1959) and Mina Johnson (d. May 11, 1960) lived long enough for me to have met them.  Their memory lived on, reinforced by stories that my mother told me in later years. For instance, mom told me that once, when grandpa was visiting, he watched one of my brothers run across the yard and he said, “You run like a jack rabbit!”

Eilert Knudtson with two of his nieces in Norway

In another story, they were visiting Grandpa Knudtson and our aunts at their home in Calgary. Everyone was standing outside and Allen, my brother, took grandpa by the hand and said that he wanted to go with him into the house. Grandpa thought that Allen wanted something, but when they got inside,  Allen told him, “I just wanted to sit with you.” Grandpa liked to hear this, and repeated it later to my mother. It is nice to have a grandpa’s lap to sit on, and it is equally nice for a grandpa to have a grandson who wants to sit on his lap.

These stories are fragments of memories. I became vividly aware that I didn’t have any living grandparents when I was in grade two. Our class was reading a story in our readers about Dick and Jane visiting their grandparents. We saw pictures of the car they traveled in and of their arrival at the home of their grandparents. As I studied these pictures I felt somehow left out and sad that I didn’t have grandparents that I could visit. I suppose that I was also aware that many of my classmates still had grandparents they could visit.


My wife, Elaine, tells of a special relationship that she enjoyed with her grandparents. When Elaine was a preschooler, she lived for a while with her parents in the same house her dad’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Anquist. While her parents and grandpa went to work for the day, Elaine would spend all day with her grandma. These were special times of bonding between the two of them. They would go together on errands, like visiting the butcher shop where they would watch the butcher wrap the meat in paper and string, or they would work in the kitchen preparing supper or baking. And it was fun when grandpa came home from work and gave special attention and love to his granddaughter, taking her onto his lap as he sipped a cup of coffee.  I have no such memories.

Grandma’s house, built by her husband Henry in 1915. Grandma (Mina) lived in this house until she died in 1960, and as a widow since Henry died in 1943.

My brothers Allen and Arthur are both older than I am (Allen is six years older and Arthur four years older), so they have more vivid memories of our grandparents. Arthur told me in recent years how as a little boy he and Allen slept over at Grandma Johnson’s house on one occasion. He remembers that they had to sleep at grandma’s house that night because grandma was “afraid of lightning.” Someone must have explained it to Arthur in this way.  Grandma lived alone in her house on the farm just a few miles from our farm, and in same yard as the home of her son Clifford and family.

On July 2, 2017 the descendants of my grandpa and grandma Johnson had a family reunion. That day I learned more stories about my grandmother from older cousins. One of them (Carolyn, born 1941) told me how during the summer she would sometimes stay with grandma in her house. Carolyn said that grandma was playful. After the noon meal they would sometimes play Chinese checkers. The person who lost would have to do the dishes. But if grandma lost, then they would have to play more games so that the person who won the most games out of three would be spared the dishes. Or if the pastor showed up for the second time that week just before noon, grandma had everyone (grandchildren) quickly hide the dishes so that they could tell the pastor that they had already eaten.  The pastor enjoyed grandma’s home cooking–but enough is enough.

As I have observed, there is often a unique relationship that develops between children and their grandparents, one that differs qualitatively from the one between parents and children. Parents are often preoccupied with the demands of work and the responsibility to correctly  training and correcting their children. Grandparents, on the other hand, may have a somewhat more relaxed attitude concerning their duties and responsibilities, which may, in turn, give distinctive shape to the relationship. “What happens at grandma’s, stays at grandma’s.”

This past Sunday (October 7, 2018) we had our two oldest children and their families at our home for a thanksgiving meal. Timothy has just moved this summer back to Calgary with his family from Seattle (Bellevue), so it was nice now to be able to have both his family and Kristy’s family here for Sunday. This meant that four of our six grandchildren were here. It felt good to have all of them and their parents, enlivening our usually quiet house with boisterous noise and activity.

As I watched and listened, I thought, “How good it is to have grandchildren.” At one point, I observed Elaine interact with our oldest granddaughter. “How good it is that Faith has such a grandmother,” I thought to myself as I saw how they understood each other at a deep level.  This relationship between grandmother and granddaughter has developed over the years, and is a treasure to both of them.


I don’t know what it would have meant to have had grandparents during my school years. I suppose I pictured being doted on by a grandparent, being given cookies and milk at the kitchen table or simply having someone who was happy to see me and spend time visiting with me.


gran7Though I grew up without grandparents, in recent years I have come to enjoy a relationship that has in a way filled this void. As I was about to turn sixty, I came to know a man—one much older than I am (he is about 24 years my senior)—who has become a kind of grandpa figure in my life, Father Robert (“Father Bob”) Mitchell, a Franciscan friar.  Since the fall of 2013, I have been making monthly visits to Father Bob. He is someone who looked like a grandpa, who was always happy to see me, and who was not in a hurry.  He patiently sits and listens to me talk about how I was doing. Even though I am too old to have a living grandpa,




Father Bob is always genuinely happy to see me, as I am to see him. We often greet each other with a hug, or give one as we part—or both. We begin by informally sharing something of how we are. Then Father Bob reads a short scripture, and we pause for a period of silence before I share what strikes me about this passage, or how I may hear God speak to me through it. Our conversation continues, leading wherever it will, as we seek together to hear ways in which God may be leading in my life. Father Bob listens or shares examples from his own life and experience that we relate to what I have been talking about.

Father Bob has become my “spiritual director,” a term with a centuries-long history within Catholic Christianity, but increasingly familiar to other Christians as well. Gordon Smith of the Christian and Missionary Alliance gives a good definition of spiritual direction, a definition that accurately describes Father Bob’s contribution to my own life.

“A spiritual director offers spiritual guidance and companionship to help us make sense of our faith journey, interpret with us the significant markers on the road, and encourage us, particularly through the more difficult transitions and valleys of our pilgrimage. Most of all, a spiritual director helps us make sense of the witness of the Spirit—assisting us to respond well to the question, How is God present to me and how is God, though the ministry of the Spirit, at work in my life?” (Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction, InterVarsity Press, 2014, page 9).

Much of what happens in that little room where Father Bob and I visit concerns more of a feeling or impression than of information that is shared. I often leave those visits with a sense of unexpected joy that leaps up within me. Though much of our conversation is quite ordinary, made up of the regular stuff of life, I have nonetheless often left with a sense of how uncanny and good our visit has been. These little visits are unlike anything else that I do in my life—similar in some ways with a good conversation over coffee with a friend, but more like a child’s visit with a grandpa or grandma.

I think we all need “elders” in the faith, people who are genuinely interested in our well-being, who have the time to listen to us and help us discern the ways of God in our lives. The apostle Paul describes his relationship to the Corinthian Christians in such terms. He writes, “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15)

Many people decry the fact that so many churches today are made up of a preponderance of old people; there are so many grey heads. It would be better, we think, to be part of a youthful church filled with young families. We of course want to see the gospel flourish among the young, but I also wonder if we are not often missing out on the treasure we have with the large number of seniors in our churches. I think of the potential benefit that many younger believers could receive if they were “adopted” by these older people who could take on the role of spiritual parents or grandparents.  I wish that everyone could have the equivalent of my relationship to Father Bob.

gran10There is a significant role for grandparents to play in the lives of their grandchildren.  This may be the greatest calling of all in our later years.

In 2016 my mother knitted baby blankets for her great grandchildren who were born that year. Mom died on December 8, 2016. These babies were born into a world where they were loved by generations of their family, even by a great-grandmother they would never know in this lifetime.

“Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their parents.”   Proverbs 17:6


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Paul was a preacher and teacher until he retired in 2015. He continues to write and listen to what God is saying to him in the ordinary and extraordinary things of life. Elaine was a public school teacher and administrator until she retired in 2018. She is using her retirement to reflect on God's work in her life and to share insights with her family and friends.

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