Oldest daughter recounts influence of parents Billy & Ruth Graham
TAMPA, Fla. (BP)--As the firstborn child of Billy Graham, Virginia "Gigi" Graham Tchividjian admits that coping with the public's expectations for the daughter of a world-renowned evangelist can be overwhelming at times.
Tchividjian said she has learned not to wear herself out trying to live up to everyone's expectations, which sometimes can be unrealistic or impossible to attain. She once answered the door with rollers in her hair, to face a neighbor who asked incredulously, "You wear rollers?"
"It was as if he thought the angel Gabriel himself would do that kind of stuff for me," she joked.
The other side of dealing with the expectations attached to the Graham name, she said, was the uneasy reaction that the family sometimes encountered.
"Some of the neighbors initially thought we would constantly carry around big, black Bibles and say, 'The Bible says ... the Bible says ... .'"
Tchividjian, a longtime resident of Coral Springs, Fla., said her parents never wanted their five children to pretend to be something they weren't. Instead, Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, encouraged the children to be honest and real in all their dealings.
"We were never sacrificed on the altar of public opinion," Tchividjian said. "My parents didn't make us behave a certain way because we were 'Billy Graham's children.' I don't ever remember a time when either of them told us we had to act differently for the public."
The public, however, tended to act differently toward the Graham children. Tchividjian recalled that while growing up in Montreat, N.C., their home became a local tourist attraction, especially on Sunday afternoons when church groups often gathered on their front lawn to take pictures.
"I can remember many a Sunday afternoon when three Greyhound buses would pass by our house one by one, letting people off as they piled into our yard," Tchividjian recalled.
Groups who felt a special connection with the family weren't shy about looking around, she said. And "Baptists were the worst about that sort of thing" because they identified with her father, a fellow Baptist.
"The Episcopalians were very polite. They drove by but they didn't stop and get out to look," she quipped. "The Presbyterians were a little bolder since Mom was a Presbyterian. They stopped to look but they didn't come very close. Then a bus parked in the driveway and people piled into the yard, taking pictures, peeking into the windows, calling us by name, asking to come in. Those were the Baptists."
Tchividjian said the two best things her parents did to help the children cope with the public's attention was to let them grow up in a small community where they were accepted as individuals and to live across the street from their maternal grandparents, Nelson and Virginia Bell, former Presbyterian medical missionaries to China.
"My grandparents played a very strong role in raising us," said Tchividjian, who was named after her grandmother. "Sometimes my grandfather was a kind of surrogate father to me when Daddy was away.
"As a child, I assumed all fathers traveled like my Daddy. It was just a normal part of life," she said.
Tchividjian said she has grown especially close to her parents over the last few years as a caregiver and travel companion to them during extended illness.
"When I get a call from Daddy, saying, 'Honey, can you come?' it makes me feel really good to know that they feel they can call on me. I think it's the Lord's sweet way of making up to me for Daddy being away as a child. And it has and more."
Tchividjian said she thinks it's her father's enduring message, "God loves you," that's part of his universal appeal.
"Daddy and I were talking recently that it's so easy, sometimes, to judge when we don't have the whole picture," she said. "Our job is to love. God's job is to correct. Daddy attracts people to the love of the Lord Jesus and he lets the Lord do the correcting."
Tchividjian said she wasn't raised with the concept of being "sinners in the hands of an angry God." Instead, she said her parents' honest yet positive portrayal of Christianity drew her to a commitment at age 4.
"The Christianity we saw in our parents was a fun-loving and balanced Christianity. It made me have an appetite for what they had.
"I was very aware of the fact that salvation isn't something inherited," she said. "Each one of us has to accept Christ individually. Mom explained what it meant to be a Christian, and I opened my heart and bowed my head. And that was it.
"I didn't understand all the theological implications of it at the time, but I knew the Lord was real -- and that experience began a good work in me that continues today," Tchividjian said.
Her faith was strengthened by family devotionals, she said, which she continued with her children. "Our family devotions weren't long, but they were fun, often hectic and always with interruptions -- a phone ringing, the dog barking, the washing machine overrunning. I learned to laugh it off and go on, to never give up on having those times with the Lord together."
Tchividjian and her mother have co-written a book about how to maintain family devotional times amid increasingly hectic schedules. "Mothers Together" contains many anecdotes about growing up in the Graham household and what Tchividjian -- a mother of seven and grandmother of 10 -- has learned about motherhood from her mother, then and now.
She said her parents' good example, which was the same at home as it was in public, has been an inspiration and encouragement to her.
"I never felt being Billy Graham's daughter was a burden, but I definitely felt it was a responsibility," she said. "I know when I leave the house I represent not only Jesus Christ, I also represent Billy Graham and what he stands for."