When I was 14, I packed my things and left. I was fighting a lot with my mother, and my father was in and out of my life and addicted to painkillers. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so walked out. I lived with my dad for a bit, but it wasn’t good. I stayed with friends, but eventually I moved in with my grandmother.
And let me just say, it saved my life.
She was in her 70s. She wore sweatpants and white shoes and in the winter she wore a faded yellow coat. When she hugged me, her arms trembled, and so did her lips when she kissed my cheek. Her home had the same flower print carpet and brown and white tile it did in ’82, the year I was born. I cannot say I understood her, or that we had really anything in common outside of our family relationship. But one thing I knew for sure, she loved me, and her home was the most stable, unchanging place I had access to. At 14, it was exactly what I needed.
I was scared to ask her if I could live with her, but at the time, I felt out of options. I was at her house for dinner. She’d just made me bacon and eggs, and as I sat at her counter eating, I slowly prepared for the question, my right hand rubbing the counter top, my left heel bouncing. I gave it a couple false starts, “What do you think about…” and “How would you feel if …” before I actually asked if I could live with her.
Grandma was standing across from me, her left hand leaning against the kitchen sink. She looked in my eyes, and then down at the counter. Her glasses were smudged with moisturizer. Perhaps she wondered if she could still care for a teenager. Maybe she wondered if it was her place to raise me. I don’t know all that going though her mind, but what I do know is that she leaned her elbows on the table, her face level with mine, and agreed under two conditions: I would attend church, and I would keep my hair short. Naturally I agreed to her conditions, and she gave me the bedroom my father shared with my Uncle Jack.
I stayed there until I finished high school, and it’s only now, as I’m learning about my 20-year high school reunion, after having three children of my own, that I realize why my grandmother was so reluctant to say “yes,“ and how much she must have sacrificed by taking in her troubled, slightly drug addicted, disgruntled, often absent from class, foul mouthed, rebellious, grandson, who went on to grow his hair long and refuse to attend church.
She fought with me over homework, girls, drugs, clothing, hygiene, religion, bad movies and music. It was just the two of us in that home. My grandfather had died a few years earlier. To be honest, I lost track of how many times I attempted to drop out of high school, and she looked me in the eyes and called me “a dammed fool” when I did.
She never took her eyes off me. I can still remember her sitting in the white vinyl rocker next to the refrigerator, a wrinkled moisturizer-soaked hand on her forehead, shoulders slumped, trying to figure out how to raise a teenager long after she’d intended to raise a teenager.
I can say with 100% confidence that I’d never have straightened out, finished high school, and eventually gone to college without my grandmother. I’d have never gotten married to a wonderful, charming and supportive woman, and gone on to have three wonderful children without my grandmother’s support and guidance and unwavering dedication. Right now, as I write this, I’m 37 years old, and I think I’m a pretty good dude, with a stable marriage, and awesome kids.
All of it started with the foundation my grandmother set when she said, “Yes, you can live here.”
My grandma died when I was 21, long before she had a chance to see me turn into something she could be proud of. But I must say, I cannot think about my grandmother’s face as I graduated from high school and not remember both the pride and relief I saw in her eyes.
So grandparents raising your child’s child, I know it’s a burden. But I also want you to know that you are probably saving that child’s life in ways you may never see. You are giving them the stable foundation that they so desperately need to become something more than they could be otherwise. Yes, it’s frustration. Yes, it can feel like a burden. But you are making a difference. So hold ’em tight no matter what, because they might not appreciate it now, but they will. Trust me. I know.