In early 2008, I was speaking to the leader of the Westchester County, New York, chapter of Parentless Parents. She and I were complaining that there wasn’t any time of year set aside just for us – parentless parents who want to honor the parents we no longer have in our lives.
“We can’t hold an event tied to just Mother’s Day or Father’s Day,” I said. “We need to honor both.” We started brainstorming. “Is there some sort of ‘Parents Day’? Or maybe just a day we could set aside to honor our parents as grandparents?” I asked.
As soon as we got off the phone, I Googled Grandparents Day. I discovered it was the brainchild of Marian McQuade, a stay-at-home mother of 15 in West Virginia. Her chief motivation, according to her foundation’s website, was “to champion the cause of lonely elderly in nursing homes.” She also wanted to persuade grandchildren “to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide.”
Her campaign, and ours
In 1973, McQuade began a grassroots campaign to create a special day honoring grandparents. After months of letter-writing and telephone calls to her local and state representatives, she found sympathetic ears in State Senator Shirley Love and U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph. Her efforts were indefatigable, and culminated in the 1978 signing of the National Grandparents Day proclamation by President Jimmy Carter. “Just as a nation learns and is strengthened by its history,” Carter said then, “so a family learns and is strengthened by its understanding of preceding generations.” From then on, National Grandparents Day would be celebrated every year on the first Sunday after Labor Day.
We decided to informally re-purpose the mission of Grandparents Day to honor, in the case of parentless parents, those grandparents who are no longer with us. We thought the holiday provided an unparalleled opportunity for celebrating the memory of our mothers and fathers.
But before we put our plan into motion, I felt we should let Marian McQuade know. I wanted her blessing to add this new dimension to her work. Within a few days I was in touch with Kathleen McQuade Eye, one of McQuade’s daughters. We arranged a time and date for me to meet her mom in person. I’d be the first journalist to speak with Marian in more than 10 years.
A no-nonsense woman
On April 26, 2008, I set out for the long drive to the Hill Top Center – a nursing home tucked away in Oak Hill, West Virginia. Hill Top, aptly named, sits alone at the peak of Saddle Shop Road, and when I pulled into the parking lot it reminded me of a motel. The red-brick exterior was long and slim, and its small windows were decorated with beige shutters.
Kathleen was waiting for me in the entryway. I instantly liked her. She talked about her 91-year-old mother with a great deal of love and enthusiasm. She even brought along a manila envelope full of newspaper clippings and photographs related to her mother’s life’s work. Dressed in a plain shirt and without make-up, Kathleen was every bit as no-nonsense a woman as I imagined her mother to be.
Down the hall, inside Room 312, we found Marian. Her eyes were closed and she didn’t seem to notice that Kathleen and I had entered. Her petite body was covered head-to-toe in a colorful quilt, and she had a shock of white hair peeking out from the top of the blanket. Kathleen went over to her mother’s bed and told her I was in the room. “Mother,” she said in a loud, deliberate voice. “Allison Gilbert is here. Remember, you’re having a visitor today.” When her mother didn’t respond, Kathleen, unconcerned, tried to get her attention again. “Allison is the journalist I told you about from New York. She’s here to meet you, Mama.” I stood a few feet behind them, closer to the door, and while I could hear that Marian eventually did reply to her daughter, she spoke so softly I couldn’t hear what she said.
As Kathleen continued to talk with her mother and adjust her matching quilt and pillow, I noticed that nearly every inch of the room was covered in photographs, articles, and typewritten letters reminding Marian and anyone who entered of the crusade that had consumed her younger life. It looked like a time capsule had exploded. There was even an enormous greeting card taped to the wall wishing her a Happy Grandparents Day. It was hand-signed by at least 40 people and inscribed, “Thanks to you from all of us at Fayetteville Wal-Mart for making this day a reality.” And there were so many snapshots of her grandchildren – Kathleen told me there were 40 at last count – that the bulletin board next to her bed couldn’t hold them all. The overflow were tacked with push-pins directly into the wall. When Kathleen had made sure her mother was comfortable, she welcomed me to sit next to her.
A special place
I drew up a chair next to Marian’s bedside and, with her eyes still closed, I told her how honored I was to meet her. I also told her about my mom and dad and the plan I had to use Grandparents Day to extend the legacy of all grandparents – even those who are no longer living. After every sentence or two, I’d pause for a few moments, purposefully leaving her an opening to talk, but she never did. Periodically I’d look up and ask Kathleen with my eyes if I should continue. Every time, she nodded that I should.
When my visit came to an end, I slowly stood up from my chair and thanked Kathleen for allowing me to visit. She was apologetic that her mother was having “an off day.” I told Kathleen I’d never regret meeting a national hero. Before I left, I leaned over to give Marian a kiss goodbye and when my lips briefly touched her cheek, she said in a voice so weak that I had to strain to hear it, “Thank you.”
I drove away from the nursing home elated. Back on the highway within a few minutes, I passed a huge green traffic sign standing tall on the side of the road. In white letters it proclaimed, for every motorist to see, “Home of Marian McQuade: Founder of National Grandparents Day.”
Allison Gilbert is the founder of Parentless Parents, a new and growing nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers. She is also the author of Always Too Soon and co-editor of Covering Catastrophe. Her work has been featured in the New York Times and on The Early Show, Extra!, CNN, and ABC News. The following memoir is adapted from her book, Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children (Hyperion).