IF the importance of an occasion can be measured by the number of greeting cards it spawns, National Grandparents Day must be one of the least-observed events around. In the endless racks of cards at several pharmacies and stationers in suburban Boston, Grandparents Day rates only 18 different cards. That puts this Sunday's celebration behind even next month's National Boss Day, with a selection of 26 greetings.
Grandparents do, of course, receive recognition on Mothers Day and Fathers Day. But the fact that a separate day of honor was established 15 years ago signals a changing perception of the nation's more than 55 million grandmothers and grandfathers, who form part of the fastest growing age group in America.
Once upon a time, the role of grandparent was fairly predictable. Children grew up, married, and soon began producing the next generation. Grandmothers were entitled to carry purse-sized photo albums labeled ``Grandma's Brag Book'' and to splurge on pricey gifts for the youngest family members. Grandfathers were elevated to the role of patriarch, becoming imposing figures who inspired as much awe as affection among their grandchildren.
Now the noun ``grandparent'' has become a gerund - ``grandparenting'' - as if to signify far more active involvement. At the same time, the role that once came so naturally is surrounded by instructions and guidelines, delivered in books and in special grandparent classes and support groups. Last year Sage Publications put out what it bills as the nation's first ``grandparent education curriculum,'' a five-volume series of books with titles ranging from ``Becoming a Better Grandparent'' to ``Achieving Grandparent Potential.''
Being a modern grandparent, it seems, requires a delicate balancing act. Become involved, the experts advise, but don't interfere. Be available to help, but maintain your independence.
Independence may, in fact, be far more common than active involvement, considering the miles that separate many families. But with or without rules and guidebooks, never have all generations needed each other more. As parents become increasingly stretched between responsibilities at work and at home, and as more families are reconfigured by divorce and remarriage, grandparents form an essential link between generations. They are the glue that binds past and present, the bond that helps assure family stability and strength.
Yet that role continues to change in profound ways. A few decades ago, who could have imagined that grandparents would find it necessary to seek legal protection for the right to visit their own grandchildren? Through the efforts of grandparent-rights groups in the 1980s, nearly all states now have laws protecting grandparents from having their visitation rights cut off by divorce or death in a grandchild's family.
Moreover, who could have predicted that for some grandparents in the 1990s, any dreams of retirement would have to be put on hold while they rear grandchildren abandoned by parents on drugs or orphaned by parents with AIDS?
Most startling of all, who could have imagined a chilling new world in which grandmothers would serve as surrogates for married children unable to conceive? In the most publicized case two years ago, Arlette Schweitzer of Aberdeen, S.D., bore her own twin grandchildren for her daughter and son-in-law.
Then there are the would-be grandparents - the ones waiting silently, impatiently while adult sons and daughters postpone parenthood to pursue advanced degrees or establish careers.
Grandparents used to be thought of as old-fashioned. Now it's the term itself that seems dated or at least somewhat nondescriptive. Grand is not a word that goes with the times.
In a world where Elizabeth Taylor is a grandmother and Paul Newman is a grandfather and less-famous grandparents climb mountains and run marathons, the symbolic rocking chair has turned into a launching missile, set for destinations still unknown. Yet what distance or activity can separate a grandparent from caring thoughts of the youngest generation?
An Italian adage advises, ``If nothing else is going right, call your grandfather and grandmother.'' The new American version could read: ``Even when everything is going right, call them then, too.'' Especially if it just happens to be Grandparents Day.