When I was growing up, my father was in and out of jail, so my mother was struggling to manage being a single mother of three kids. It seemed like, back then, all we did was fight. Every day my mom and I fought. And so one night, while my mother was at work, and my older brother and sister were out, I packed my things and left. I was a pissed off teen from a broken home who felt that anything — even living in a tent — was better than where I was.
I bounced around for a bit. I stayed with friends. I stayed with my father for a short time, but his addictions made it difficult. Eventually, after weeks of trying to find a place that fit, my grandmother took my in under two conditions: (1) I’d go to church and (2) I’d keep my hair short. Two rules I later went on to break.
I was 14 when I moved in, and 19 when I left.
She was in her early late 70s, a farmer’s widow, living in a rural Utah, not far from the house I was raised in. She had poofy brown curls that she dyed, and washed, and permed each week. Her glasses were big and thick and often coated in moisturizer. She couldn’t have stood more than five feet tall, but I remember feeling that she was much taller than that. She wore matching sweat pants and sweat shirts every day except Sunday, when she wore a faded red dress.
Each morning she made me a breakfast of Total whole grain cereal, toast, orange juice, and one hard-boiled egg. Next to my plate were two dollars to pay for school lunch. She attended my parent-teacher conferences. She followed up on my homework. She got to know my friends. She helped me buy my first car, a 1984 Dodge Aries, and when that broke down, she helped me buy a small S-10 pickup that I drove until I got married.
She taught me how to manage my money, wash my clothes, and care for a vehicle. She showed me the importance of paying for what you need first, and what you want later. She showed me how to sit down and really love someone, even when they are incredibly difficult to live with. In fact, she showed me how to love by loving me.
We fought, and we made up. She gave me advice on everything from school to dating. She called me a dumb ass, a jackass, and a lazy ass, and a million other flavors of ass. She stood between me and the door several times, informing me that I couldn’t leave until I finished some homework assignment, or picked up after myself, and she didn’t give a damn if she had to beat the hell out of me. Not that she ever did, but the fire in her eyes told me that she wouldn’t think twice to put me in my place.
I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to take in her son’s son in the twilight of her life, particularly a teenager with a sour attitude and rebellious sprit, who questioned everything, and had a taste for trashy punk music. She must have looked at this skinny kid with Kurt Cobain bleached hair and wondered what she’d gotten into and why this was her responsibility. Towards my last couple years of high school, she must have looked at her son and wondered if she’d done something wrong raising him every time I drove her to visit him in jail. And she must have wondered if she was making those same mistakes with me.
Ultimately, this is what it looks like when grandparents take in their grandchildren. They are left with a lot of questions.
But here’s the thing: if you are currently raising your child’s child, I want you to know how much you are doing for that young life. Because I can say, now, that my grandmother, without question, saved me.
Were it not for Grandma, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I’m 35, with three kids. I’ve been married for almost 14 years to a beautiful woman with a sweet disposition, who doesn’t think twice to call me on my crap, and in so many ways, she reminds me of my grandmother.
I have a master’s degree, and a good job with benefits. I have a mortgage. Sometimes, even now, when I’m stressed and anxious and overwhelmed, I think of my grandma’s small 3-bedroom home in rural Utah, with the 60’s pink pastel appliances and faded flower print carpet, and feel a cool peace come over my body. Because ultimately, that’s what she provided me. My time living with my grandma was like walking into the eye of a storm. All around me was chaos, and yet she sheltered me from all that.
I never would have graduated from high school without her. I never would have gotten my first job, went to college, married the right person, stopped experimenting with drugs, and learned that there are things in the world worth living for.
When a child moves in with a grandparent, uncle, aunt, older brother or sister, it’s rarely under ideal circumstances. It can be a source of stress, financial burden, and fatigue. It can make you wonder what you did to deserve this, and whether it will all work out in the end. I get it. I was there.
But if you are in this person’s life, caring for them, realize that you are doing something incredibly wonderful. You are taking someone in who needs you more now than they ever did, or probably ever will. Chances are, you are saving that young person, and although they may not realize it now, they will. Trust me.