“Extending Family Relationships,” Ensign, Oct. 1986, 57
“Thanks again, Dad, for keeping the little ones while I was helping out at school,” said Marie. “I could never have done it without your help.”
Her father smiled. “It was a delight to have the children here, and I’m glad we could help.”
Making their extended family an important part of their lives is, for some grandparents, one of the great joys of growing older. They look forward to the visits of their grandchildren and watch attentively over each little detail of their development, sharing with the parents their affection for the little ones.
While such involvement often requires a sacrifice of time and effort, it provides opportunities for compassionate service and the sharing of a lifetime of accumulated wisdom and knowledge.
Whether we live in the same city in which other members of our family live, or far away, or even whether we have any living relatives, our choices are the same. Our extended family can be seen as a natural extension of ourselves, or they can be seen as distractions from our own needs and interests.
The scriptures abound with insight into the value of maintaining good extended family relationships. Abraham, for instance, left Ur of Chaldees and took with him his brother’s son Lot to follow the Lord in a new land. (See Gen. 11:31.) During a time of famine, Joseph of Egypt saved the lives of his father, brothers, sister, and their families. (See Gen. 42–47.) Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, discussed their welfare on at least one occasion: “Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he said.” (Ex. 18:24.) Though he was a prophet, Moses honored his father-in-law and respected his counsel.
We can gain lasting satisfaction from supporting members of our extended family. This can be either through meeting emotional needs or through service.
Construction on Dave Fisher’s new home had been delayed for many months, and so he and his family were invited to move in with his grandmother, an 83-year-old widow, until their home was built. One day, as Dave came home from work, he heard laughter in the backyard and went outside to see what was so funny. There, kneeling in the grass at the edge of the garden, was Great-grandmother Fisher and his two small daughters, giggling over a great batch of mudpies that they were making together.
At the Newstedt family’s reunion each summer, each member contributes to the family missionary fund. Family members feel more secure about their children’s missions, knowing that this money is available if needed.
Elder Bradley Hall, serving a mission in Argentina, was shot and critically wounded by men attempting to rob his apartment. He was in such serious condition at first that he could not be flown to the United States, and it appeared that he would be permanently paralyzed. Members of his family across the country united in a fast for his recovery. “This fast was an incredible experience,” related a family member. “Although our family is spread all over the United States, the love and faith that was manifest made it as if we all lived in the same city.” Elder Hall’s paralysis now seems only temporary.
Sometimes love for a family member is deepened because of someone else’s love for that person. Don Peterson tells how his love for his grandparents became even greater once his wife, Susan, helped him appreciate them in ways he had never realized. Susan’s family lived far away, and she “hit it off” right away with Grandma and Grandpa Peterson and eventually adopted them as her own. “The feeling was mutual,” Don said. “Grandma and Grandpa loved her as a granddaughter.”
The older couple offered their basement apartment for Don and Susan to live in while he was in graduate school, and they were happy to live near campus and help Grandma and Grandpa in the house and garden. “When we were dating, one of Susan’s favorite activities was to drive over to their house for popcorn and board games,” Don reminisced. “This continued after we were married, and Susan would take Grandma shopping and style her hair.
“Grandpa and Grandma are both gone now,” he added, “but memories of them still are very much a part of our lives. One of our most precious keepsakes is Grandma Peterson’s cookie bucket, which was always full of her special cookies as far back as I can remember. Susan has the recipe and makes these cookies often. It helps us remember how much we love my grandparents.”
Keeping the generations close brings not only emotional rewards but also added perspective. Don remembered how, on a picnic one day with his wife, children, and grandparents, they went for a ride along the same route that Grandma Peterson had traveled more than seventy years earlier to a mining camp in Nevada. She told of the bumpy wagon ride with her brothers and sisters in the back of the wagon, the dust and hot sun, and stopping to camp in the desert on the way. The trip had taken them three days, and Grandma marveled at the two hours that it had taken her to travel the same distance that summer day in the 1970s. What better ways to learn of history than from those who lived it!
The kind of closeness the Petersons enjoyed came largely from associating with and serving one another. Of course, living nearby helps promote that kind of relationship, but it isn’t essential. One grandmother keeps close to her grandchildren who live far away by purchasing a children’s book, recording a tape of her reading the story, and sending the book and tape to her grandchildren.
Remembering milestones of extended family members is another way to bridge distances that frequently separate loved ones today. Birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations can be remembered with a card, a phone call, or note; and children’s pictures or drawings are perfect companions to grace a grandparent’s refrigerator door or family picture gallery.
These efforts take little time and money, but they can reap important rewards. Sometimes, however, we may need to go the extra mile. An ill-humored aunt or uncle, a critical grandmother, or an overbearing cousin all may require extra portions of love. In such cases, we must “develop the ability and self-discipline to think of other family members and their … needs ahead of your own. … One must be willing to forego personal convenience to invest time in establishing a firm foundation for [the] family.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 52.)
Elizabeth learned about the rewards of foregoing personal convenience when her great-grandmother, in her last years, was in ill health and having difficulty relating to life in the 1980s. She also felt she was a burden on Elizabeth’s family members with whom she was living. Elizabeth, who was twenty-four and unmarried, soon grew tired of her great-grandmother’s constant question, “Why aren’t you married yet? Why, when I was your age. …” But instead of rejecting her elderly relative, she showed an increase of love and understanding.
“I just wanted to enjoy the good moments with Grandma,” Elizabeth explained, “and I tried not to let her questions about my not being married get me down. I realize that women married a lot younger in her day, and Grandma just didn’t understand that I hadn’t yet had the right opportunity. My challenge was to think about my eternal relationship with her, and then my irritations just melted away. I came to love her dearly.”
Developing close ties between generations can sometimes be challenging. Challenging also are the relationships we must develop after marriage. The mother who enjoyed being the special confidant of a son or daughter can no longer assume that role. The father who has been a provider and adviser to a child will discover that his role changes when that child marries. Likewise, the son or daughter who marries must also assume new responsibilities. New in-law relationships must be strengthened. A daughter-in-law needs to understand her mother-in-law’s past relationship with her son, and the mother-in-law must understand and accept the position of her son’s wife as the new central figure in his life. Parents-in-law must allow the newly married couple to adjust to each other and to be independent.
Sometimes marriage brings together families of differing backgrounds. The Biblical account of Ruth, for example, illustrates how differences can be made into strengths instead of becoming sources of contention. Ruth was from Moab, where her people worshipped many gods. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and her husband were Israelites who worshipped Jehovah. When Ruth’s husband died, Naomi decided to go back to her native country and, rather than stay in her own land, Ruth chose to go with her. Both Naomi and Ruth were loyal, loving, and unselfish. Neither insisted that only her way was right, but each learned to appreciate the other. As a consequence, Ruth was converted to the truth. (See Ruth 1–3.)
The diverse backgrounds of Michael and Eliana provided similar opportunities for adjustment, as Eliana grew up in South America and Michael in the western United States. “We knew that we’d have a lot of adjustments after our marriage, and we have had some adventures learning,” said Michael. Preparing foods from both North and South America has helped each learn about the other’s culture; Michael said he would try anything—once, anyway. One of their favorite traditions, borrowed from Eliana’s South American background, is a candlelit dinner for the two of them at midnight on Christmas Eve. “We’ve experienced some interesting Christmas Eve dinners,” explained Michael, “and some of the dishes find their way onto the family table throughout the year.”
That kind of enrichment can occur whenever families combine. Families today sometimes include children from a previous marriage, adopted children, foster children, and nonmember children. Full acceptance of these new family members not only is vital to their well-being, but can improve the quality of our own life as well.
There are, in fact, limitless opportunities to enjoy “extended family” relationships, both in the Church and with nonmembers. Literally, the extended family is the family of man. As we extend our family relationships to include our brothers and sisters in premortal life, we extend our potential for joy. In this sense, our extended family can be as large as we want to make it. We would do well to look around us at the people in our ward and our community who would brighten our lives and be brightened by our love.
Extended family can be “adopted” through acts of kindness or service or just simple friendliness. Sister Evans, for example, had just given birth to her seventh baby; as she sent her husband and children off to church the first Sunday she was home, she gave them some good advice. “Have the four oldest children find someone who looks lonely and sit with them. That way you’ll only have two to manage during the meeting.” The results were interesting.
Five-year-old Chad went up to Brother Barney, an elderly man who sat alone because his wife played the organ. “May I sit with you?” asked the young boy. Brother Barney’s eyes lit up and he slid over to make a place for Chad beside him. They sat together for that meeting, the man blessing the boy and the boy blessing the man.
Although Brother Barney had not been ill at the time, he died within two weeks of that meeting. At the funeral, one of his daughters approached Sister Evans and said, “You’re Chad’s mother, aren’t you? Dad spoke many times during his last few days about how wonderful it was that you shared one of your beautiful children with him that day. It meant a great deal to him.”
How many widows and widowers in our wards and neighborhoods might enjoy the company of one of our children sitting beside them for an hour at church or helping around their home? Or how many young parents struggling through a church meeting with several young ones would appreciate an offer of help? How simple are the little acts that banish discouragement and loneliness! And the more often we do this, the more we extend our feelings of family ties to all the children of Heavenly Father.
Each Sunday, a mother prepares an extra plate of piping hot Sunday dinner and has one of the children carry it across the street to a widower. When the family first started this practice, the old man had been the neighborhood grouch, often speaking gruffly to the children as they played. But over the years the family has seen a change in their neighbor. They are even beginning to think of him as a member of their extended family.
“The very mobility of our society,” said President Spencer W. Kimball, “means that our children are often moved from place to place and lose close contact with the extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and longtime neighbors. It is important for us also to cultivate in our own family a sense that we belong together eternally, that whatever changes outside our home, there are fundamental aspects of our relationship which will never change. We ought to encourage our children to know their relatives. We need to talk of them, make effort to correspond with them, visit them, join family organizations.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, p. 112.)
Extending our family to include grandparents and cousins, grandchildren and nieces, neighbors and friends is really just a matter of extending our love. And as the Lord has consistently counseled, the more love we extend, the fuller our life will be of the things that matter most.