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Grandparents Day: Much More Than a Hallmark Holiday

Now in its 33rd year, the annual holiday started with one woman's compassion for the elderly


This Sunday, September 9, is the 33rd anniversary of Grandparents Day, a holiday that, if still not widely celebrated, is gradually growing in national awareness. But unlike some other annual occasions, it's no mere "Hallmark holiday."

Grandparents Day is the brainchild of Marian Lucille Herndon McQuade (1917-2008), an Oak Hill, W. Va., housewife and mother of 15 who worked with senior citizens for many years. Her goal was two-fold: to encourage young people to tap the wisdom and heritage that their grandparents could provide, and to call attention to the needs of lonely senior citizens living in nursing homes.

(MORE: Grandparents' Gifts That Keep on Giving)

McQuade launched her campaign in 1970. U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) soon joined the cause, and in 1973 West Virginia became the first state to commemorate Grandparents Day. That same year, Randolph introduced a resolution in Congress to make the day an annual event. After a few years of inaction, media attention put the resolution back on the agenda, and in 1978 Congress passed legislation declaring the first Sunday after Labor Day to be National Grandparents Day.

President Jimmy Carter's proclamation of September 6, 1979, three days before the first national celebration, read in part:

"As we seek to strengthen the enduring values of the family, it is appropriate that we honor our grandparents. Grandparents are our continuing tie to the near-past, to the events and beliefs and experiences that so strongly affect our lives and the world around us. Whether they are our own or surrogate grandparents who fill some of the gaps in our mobile society, our senior generation also provides our society a link to our national heritage and traditions.

"We all know grandparents whose values transcend passing fads and pressures, and who possess the wisdom of distilled pain and joy. Because they are usually free to love and guide and befriend the young without having to take daily responsibility for them, they can often reach out past pride and fear of failure and close the space between generations."

The American Grandparent 2012

Today's nearly 70 million American grandparents — a group that includes many of you — still fill the roles they always have, offering young people guidance, a sense of self, a shoulder to cry on and a confidante in their ongoing battles with Mom and Dad. They also love spoiling kids, in some cases showering grandchildren with so much cash that they jeopardize their own retirement savings.

In many households, grandparents give much more than presents, providing their struggling families with shelter and, in some cases, stepping in for absent parents. According to analysis of Census Bureau research by Generations United, a group that promotes Grandparents Day and advocates intergenerational policy initiatives, at least 4.8 million children in the U.S. live with a grandparent — more than half of them in households without parents.

(MORE: If You're Raising Grandkids, Get the Support You Need)

Whether acting in loco parentis full-time, or interacting with kids through weekly Skype chats, grandparents connect with kids as no one else can, in part because no one else has as much to share. "Children love to hear about their parents when they were little, or even your childhood," Next Avenue columnist Terri Orbuch recently told grandparents. "This will help them connect the present to the past. And you can use it as a way to encourage them to open up to you."

This Sunday, if you're with your kids, encourage them to give their grandparents a call. If you're a grandparent yourself, well, we can't promise that the kids will show up at your door and surprise you with a cake. If Marian McQuade's dream continues to grow, maybe that'll happen next year. In the meantime, maybe you can take the occasion as a reminder to get together with your grandkids more often, and more meaningfully, in the year ahead. You deserve it, and so do they.

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