Why Our Project Grandma Was a Success

project sock creatures

Our grandma and our project.

I didn’t think to tell our kids about Project Grandma until after a conversation yesterday. Sitting on the deck eating lunch with our family, they asked us about their great-grandparents. We shared our memories, and then today I remembered Project Grandma.

It’s a neat story – and an even greater project. It’s amazing what one family – or a group of individuals – can do when they work together. This is something any family can do, and it’s an ingenious way to be a small part in making a year more enjoyable for a person you love.

The idea is born

This great idea came from Dave’s Aunt Sue, who realized that her mother was spending long days by herself. Grandma’s seven children, twenty-six grandchildren, and  some twenty great-grandchildren were scattered across the US and overseas. Even those who lived locally  had busy lives and busy schedules. Aunt Sue knew that her mama was lonely at times, and she decided to do something about it.

project hands

This project took place when our kids were small – over twenty  years ago. We didn’t have cell phones or Instagram, Periscope, Facebook, Snapchat, or Skype. Grandma probably wouldn’t have used those electronics anyhow. Remembering now, I smile. It was a good time – and a great project!

project aunt sue
Grandma and her daughter Sue

Here is the story as it was first published in Christian Living Magazine in September, 1990. If you’re looking for a way to help family members connect with someone who is alone and/or lonely, you’ll find some great ideas here.

A calendar for the project

Because Grandma had 26 grandchildren, each grandchild was assigned two weeks in the year to do a “project” for Grandma.

Two projects per grandchild times twenty-six grandchildren = one full year of love.

If your family decides to do something like this, I’d love to hear about it.  I really would!


Project Grandma

project grandma by herself
Grandma Slabach

I fumble with the key in my hand and finally get the door unlocked. My husband’s sister, Rhoda, steps in ahead of me and takes a big whiff.

“Ummmmm,” she says, “it smells just like Grandma’s house.”

“Yes,” I agree, inhaling the hominess and love.

While Grandma Slabach is not my real Grandma, I claim her as mine because she belongs to my husband and because she is the only Grandma I have ever known. I can also claim ownership since I have played a part in Project Grandma, an organized family way of taking turns to share our love and add special moments to her days.

So while I wait for Rhoda to pick up her luggage for our return trip to Virginia, I find myself savoring the smell of Grandma’s house as I look around, again. Yes, Grandma’s house has a “feel” of age and lived-in-ness and comfort.  Everything is in its place.

Each piece of furniture sits where Grandma has had it for years. It must stay in place so she can find her way around, for Grandma is legally blind, and anything out of place might cause her to fall or become confused. Grandma’s house looks and feels like Grandma.

Little wonder then that Grandma, who is 89 years old, chooses to stay in comfortable, familiar surroundings rather than to move into the unchartered territory of someone else’s home.

Grandma’s family of seven children and 26 grandchildren is scattered from her hometown in Sugarcreek, Ohio to Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Indonesia and Brazil. Family members who live nearby check in almost daily. Mindy, the cat, is almost as much a part of the place as is Grandma, along with Mindy’s two grown tom cats.

Grandma still bakes her own bread and shares it with members of her family. Until just a few years ago, she had a small garden and did her own weeding on her hands and knees, feeling the difference of plants and weeds with  her fingers.  Grandma tries to read with a magnifying glass, but enjoys having people come by and read her mail to her.

Yet in spite of her activities and visits from family, her days are often long and empty. She has plenty of time to sit and think and feel lonely. That is how Project Grandma  came to be.

project 3 boys
Our family during Project Grandma days.

It was Aunt Sue’s idea.

“I know that you all love Grandma and would like to help her fill her lonely days,” she wrote to her nieces and nephews. “With so many of you living far away, I thought of an idea to help us all stay in touch with her. We’ll call it ‘Project Grandma’.”

Aunt Sue explained her idea and asked for volunteers from the grandchildren to participate. Who would have even thought of saying no?!  She made a calendar for the entire year, filling in names of the grandchildren on a weekly basis. The week or weeks the grandson or granddaughter had Project Grandma, it was his/her responsibility to do something special for Grandma. Because everyone received a copy of the calendar, it was easy to trade with another cousin if the week assigned fell on an inconvenient time.

“I suggest that you don’t tell Grandma about this project,” Aunt Sue wrote when she sent out the calendars. “She will enjoy it more if she doesn’t feel that someone might be doing it merely out of a sense of duty. I know, too, that you would do a lot for Grandma if there were no organized project, but sometimes this may help us to remember in our hurried schedules.”

And that’s how it began.

That Grandma enjoys this project is quite evident.

Often when she calls Aunt Sue during the week, her opening remark is, “Vas danksht?!” [What do you think?].

Then she tells her what one of her grandchildren has done for her.

Gloria, who is Grandma’s oldest grandchild and lives just a few miles from her, took Grandma out for breakfast one morning. They visited so many shops afterward (at Grandma’s request), that they didn’t get home until mid afternoon!  Gloria took her a plate of freshly baked cookies another day.

Granddaughter Ruth sent flowers from her home in southern Virginia. Grandma couldn’t figure out why they had come.

“It isn’t my birthday, you know,” she told folks.

Someone convinced Grandma that she surely was the intended recipient.

Later Ruth sent a tape which she made as she worked in her kitchen. As Grandma listens to it, she can hear pots and pans rattling while Ruth talks. The hum of carpenters working can also be heard in the background. Ruth explains that they are building a playhouse for two-year-old Jaimee.  Jaimee participates as well, talking to Great-Grandma on the tape. And Grandma remembers holding Jaimee for the first time when she was just three days old.  She happened to be visiting her son Monroe (Jaimee’s grandfather) when Jaimee was born, and she got to hold and rock her more than practically anyone else during those first weeks.

project mimi and ruth and jaimee
Mimi and Ruth (granddaughters from Virginia) with Ruth’s daughter Jaimee enjoy breakfast with Grandma.

Myron’s house sits on a hill overlooking Grandma’s.  She was so pleased when he went to church with her one Sunday morning (while his wife and their two children went to their own church).  He stayed afterward for a covered-dish dinner.

Wayne and his wife Beth drove 45 minutes from their home in Kidron, Ohio to bring Grandma supper one evening. Wayne belongs to Grandma through her daughter Edna and Bill.  They invited Bill and Edna to join them for the meal.  Erica and Andrea, their small daughters, played on the swings in the yard while the adults visited.

“I always like it when the swings are used,” Grandma remarked. “Grandpa put those swings there years go for the grandchildren, and now the great-grandchildren are enjoying them, too.”

Karen Miller, who has a short five-minute drive to Grandma’s house, included her on a date one evening.  She and her boyfriend Jerry took Grandma and Jerry’s grandma out to eat one evening.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told her family.

Steve and his wife Jill took an evening from their busy schedule in Indiana to make a tape for Grandma. They talked about their jobs and Steve’s classes at a seminary. They told Grandma about their bread baking and about their special cat by the name of B.C. Grandma listens to this tape often.

“It might get worn out because I play it so much,” she remarked. Two years later, she’s still talking about Steve and Jill’s cat.

When Steve and Jill mentioned bread- baking, it sparked a response in Grandma, and she made a tape for them. On it she talked about how she used to bake bread in an outdoor oven as an Amish girl at home. She also shared her bread recipe with them.

Brian spent time reading family  history books to her. “How thoughtful,” she commented.

Because his home is nearby, he slips in often to read The Budget [a Amish/Mennonite Newspaper] to her as well.

Grandma is still talking about her “date” with Conrad – how he took her out to eat and then to his house a few miles away to see his animals. She chuckles when she talks about his Big Dog, Little Dog, Cat, Rabbit, Gerbil, and “something that is kind of like a snake or lizard.”

Elaine called Grandma from her home in Indiana to let her be one of the first to know of her engagement which took place on Valentine’s Day. How important and special that made her feel!

Tony, who lives  in the next town, once asked Grandma to help him decorate Christmas cookies. Because her eyesight is so poor, she mostly handed the cookies to Tony to decorate and then put the finished ones at another place. And of course she was able to enjoy visiting as they worked together.

Once when our family visited Grandma from our home in Virginia, she asked us to take her to a family cemetery. She mentioned that Tony had taken her to the same graveyard a few months before.

Ach, it was so hot that day that he brought an umbrella and held it over me to make shade,” she chuckled. “He didn’t act like  he minded,” she told us.

We smiled at each other. We knew why!

project 4 generations
4 generations: Grandma, her son Monroe and the men in my family: Dave holding Ben.

We didn’t mind, either, as we walked among the tombstones with her and listened as she reminisced about the people of her past. At the  most important tombstone of them all, we paused and felt a special reverence as she said, “And here is where Grandpa is buried.”

We were able also to locate the tombstone of Gary, her oldest daughter Ann’s first son who died before he was two. Her mind was clear as she spoke of those days now so far in the past and unknown to us.

But life moves on, and how special Grandma felt when she got a letter from Philadelphia. In it, Wendell shared a secret about the special delivery he and Sharon were expecting in the future. “You are the first person  in Holmes County to know,” he wrote. Perhaps it was even more special since his parents live in Holmes County!

Evonne helped her three- and five-year-old daughters make a tape for Great-Grandma. From Indianapolis, Grandma could listen to Rachel and Tina singing and talking to her. In response, Grandma decided to make a tape for them.  So while her daughter Ann and her husband John were visiting from Brazil, she enlisted their help as well as Aunt Sue’s. On this tape Grandma sang several songs and recited some of the poems she had memorized as a child, mostly from a McGuffy Reader.

Lisa is the oldest child of Grandma’s youngest daughter Mary, who lives in Arizona. While Lisa was a freshman at a college in Kansas, she sent Grandma Pop Tarts and a coffee mug.

project lisa on lap
Lisa, sixteen years earlier, sitting on her grandma’s lap

“How did she know I like Pop Tarts?” Grandma asked.  “I only started liking them this summer!”

Brenda, who lives in Florida, has called Grandma several times. While Grandma would probably never think of calling her own grandchildren, she is usually home to talk with them when they “reach-out-and-touch-someone.”

Grandma has received flowers for Valentine’s Day, poinsettias for Christmas, letters and tapes from other grandchildren as well. She listens to her tapes often and is able to “visit” with her family again and again in the comfort of her home.

Many of the grandchildren learned to know Grandma in a new way, making them more considerate and conscious of the needs of elderly people in general.

Our family once took her out to eat at a small restaurant of her choice. We discovered that Grandma was ordering soup simply because she could not read the menu well enough to make her own selection. After she heard the menu read to her, she ordered a full-course meal instead.

During the meal, she asked about the other people in the restaurant.

“If they know me, they should come talk to me, because I can’t see who they are and can’t go to them,” she commented.

After operating for two consecutive years, the Project can be called a success. It has added enjoyment to Grandma’s days, and many of the grandchildren will say that they feel closer to her because of Project Grandma.

project grandma gets a hug
Grandma gets a hug from a great-grandson.

For those of us who have invested time and energy, we have found that the blessing was truly ours first.

In Project Grandma, we have found that it is just as Jesus said it would be when He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

pinterest why our project grandma

Note: This article was first published on this blog six years ago. Grandma Slabach died in 1996 and Aunt Sue died in 2019. This is one of my favorite memories of Aunt Sue.

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