Losing Family History: Divorce Kills “Weekends at Grandma’s House’’

Grandparents are educators: Learning from multiple generations

Joseph Serwach
Feb 17 · 7 min read
Grandmother cooking in the kitchen
Grandmother cooking in the kitchen
My Grandma Hattie making me dinner more than 40 years ago. Photo by Joseph Serwach.

When parents are married, it’s normal to build up “couple time’’ (and cut out babysitters) by dropping kids off at “Grandma’s house.’’

The gift of that arrangement:

  1. Children are raised by two parents in one unified family.
  2. They learn supplemental lessons by spending extended periods living the way their parents did as children. Long stays with Grandma and Grandpa’s rules help kids experience things they wouldn’t learn from their parents.

Recent research shows children grow more intellectually and feel more loved through family vacations and human interactions than they do from receiving gifts.

After parents divorce, custody agreements (and disputes) make every single moment with children far more precious. Divided “parenting time’’ means kids largely move between their mom’s home and their dad’s home.

“Grandparenting time” generally diminishes. When divorced kids do visit grandparents, it’s more likely to be a time when the whole extended family is together or short visits, rather than “one-on-one time immersed in Grandma’s world for extended periods.”

We regularly hear about young people being clueless about history, religion and American culture. YouTube and TV are full of snarky interviewers asking people on the street common sense questions they can’t answer. They seem to know so little.

An elderly woman walking along a cobblestone street lined with houses showing off numerous flower boxes
An elderly woman walking along a cobblestone street lined with houses showing off numerous flower boxes
Image by Markéta Machová from Pixabay

We blame education. I now wonder if it’s because those children missed out on the gift of long weekends at their grandma’s house.

We forget grandparents — and great-grandparents — are amazing teachers.

For generations, including biblical times, people learned their life calling and vocations by following around and copying anything and everything done by the “master,’’ including master craftspeople and clergy.

Jesus Christ’s followers followed Him this exact same way. For three years, He taught them, living with them, working with them, eating with them and traveling with them.

And so it was in rural economies, where children lived with and worked with their parents (and sometimes grandparents) at home and in the fields. The lessons, the history, the beliefs and ways seamlessly passed from generation to generation.

Father Andrew Kowalczyk took us to his hometown of Zakopane, Poland, as part of 17 days in Europe. From a mountain-top convent, he explained how he didn’t know many details about two of his grandparents who died in World War II because it was hard for his mother to discuss them.

And yet, the world of his grandparents shaped his parents and shaped him. Similarly, he said, we don’t know much about Saints Anne and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus, but we know they raised Mary and influenced her and Jesus Himself. Father Andrew said:

“There are many people out there who influence us. Our parents shape us, our grandparents shape us as well…. On our pilgrimage of life and our pilgrimage of Poland, you have been exposed to many things…. Let them influence you…. We need to be thankful for the influences of the things and people we meet because they will somehow influence and shape who we are…. What is going to be said of you when you return to your homes? What is going to be said of you? …This is God’s grace, given to us. That calls for thanksgiving … giving thanks to God for each of us, people in our lives and for those moments of God’s grace that somehow God sends to us for our own goodness, for our own blessing, for our own enjoyment so that we can pass this on to someone else.’’

My great-grandparents all immigrated from Poland. My parents moved us from Hamtramck, Michigan (a tiny Polish American city surrounded on all sides by Detroit) to the suburbs when I was 5. But I “returned to my Polish roots’’ via frequent stays with my grandparents.

I never had a “baby sitter’’ in my entire life. If my parents had somewhere to go, I would be dropped off at my grandma’s house and be transported to another world. It was a smaller, older house (built in 1914).

I literally lived the way my parents lived as children, even playing with their old toys, learning the “old ways’’ from my grandparents — the children of the Polish immigrants. That included getting yelled at by the old Polish neighbors.

A woman holding a young boy, standing next to an older woman wearing a dark coat
A woman holding a young boy, standing next to an older woman wearing a dark coat
My father as a baby with his grandmother and great-grandmother. They were both immigrants who taught him another language and way of life. Photo courtesy of Serwach family archives.

That included playing in the alley (we didn’t have alleys in the suburbs) or a nearby park, walking to Joseph Campau (a main street filled with Polish stores and markets) and time at the cathedral-like church built by Polish immigrants.

You could sit on the front porch and see all the neighbors sitting on their front porches. You communicated with each other in ways no one who has a backyard deck at a suburban home would even imagine.

My daughter Jenny didn’t believe me when I told her, “I used to play in the dirt outside Grandma’s house with a spoon Grandma gave me to play with.’’

Every Hamtramck corner seemed to have a bar or a candy store or fraternal club with a pool table, pinball machine and jukebox (put there by my Grandpa Joe), so I absorbed that culture as well.

In the summer of 1984, I absorbed two distinct cultures: first spending several weeks studying journalism in London and then spending several weeks working with my dad, who temporarily took over Grandpa’s Hamtramck coin machine business. That meant going into all those bars and clubs, meeting and learning from the people of the old city.

My younger siblings don’t share that experience. It’s alien to them. But it gave me a precious gift, a word we seldom (if ever) hear in our tribal times: The gift of being cosmopolitan, which literally means a mixing and education from multiple nations, cultures and ways of life.

My father is fluent in Polish mainly because his Polish great-grandmother, Helena Romej Romanska (1870–1953), taught him her language when she watched him (while his parents and grandparents were out and about).

A group of people sitting around a table in a bar, laughing and talking
A group of people sitting around a table in a bar, laughing and talking
My Grandpa John and Grandma Hattie celebrating some victory at his Detroit bar. Photo from Serwach family archives.

To this day, native Poles are stunned that my 77-year-old father (who hasn’t lived near many Polish speakers for half a century) speaks Polish so well with literally no experience learning it in any school.

We moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (hundreds of miles from home) right out of college, and my son (unlike me) had babysitters and childcare starting at an early age because grandparents weren’t anywhere close.

At the time, South Carolina was just 2 percent Catholic, so he encountered few (if any) Poles or Catholics. How do you learn your culture, history and faith when few people even recognize it?

My dad uttered one sentence that made me work harder to get back home to Michigan as soon as I could: “I’d be delighted if my grandson winds up with a Southern drawl.’’ Our Myrtle Beach native son sounds like his parents. When we lived in Pennsylvania, an Easterner told me, “Your son sounds like he has a Chicago accent.’’

Divorce (and death) means new partners, new homes, new ways of living. Life divides into what it was like before and what it’s like after. It’s never the same.

Whether you are the one losing a partner, the child of someone doing so or the parent, the changes impact the way each and every one of you live. Look at the highs and lows of the last century:

A century ago, there were just 1.5 divorces or annulments and 11 new marriages for every 1,000 Americans. By 1981, the number of divorces nearly quintupled to an all-time high: 5.3 divorces or annulments and 10 marriages for every 1,000 Americans.

By 2010, the divorce rate had reversed, dropping back to 2.8 per 1,000 Americans. But marriages per capita hit a new low of 6.8 marriages per 1,000 Americans By 2018, America’s birth rate hit a new low (60.2 births per every 1,000 women of childbearing age). In Europe: 10 births per 1,000.

Time is now more divided: Research in the Journals of Gerontology found 20 percent of grandparents age 50 or older have at least one step-grandchild. That means children have more than four grandparents — more teachers, but less precious time with each.


This story is published in Koinonia — stories by Christians to encourage, entertain, and empower you in your faith, food, fitness, family, and fun.

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Joseph Serwach

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Story + Identity = Mission. Author, Brand Builder. Journalism, Communications, Leadership, Strategy, Culture, History, Education. Inspiration: Catholic, Polish.

Koinonia

Koinonia

Stories by Christian writers to encourage, entertain, and empower you in your faith, food, fitness, family, friendship, and fun.

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