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Grandparents can be a lifeline for kids caught in upheaval

Posted: July 18, 2011 - 7:18pm

My mother married my father, a violent and abusive man, when she was 17 — a week after she graduated from high school. We fled from him when I was 5, showing up at my grandparents’ house during a thunderstorm.

The memory of that night comes to me in flashes. I remember feeling scared and confused. We stood in their living room right by the front door, and I didn’t realize that I was trembling until my grandmother wrapped her steady arms around me.

In the months that followed, while my mother went to vocational school to learn a trade to support us, my grandparents stepped up to the plate. They provided me with safe shelter, emotional healing and a sense of who I was and where I came from.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of children living with a grandparent has increased by 64 percent in the last 10 years to 6.7 million. The uptick may be largely an outgrowth of the economy, but whatever is behind it, there are likely to be positives. Grandparents can be a lifeline for children in emotional upheaval. I know this from experience.

Even before my mother took her courageous step toward freedom, I knew my grandparents were in my corner. One evening while we were visiting them, my father and I were out at the barn and I did something that set my him off. I don’t remember what it was that night, but it could have been anything — knocking over a rake, laughing too loudly. Whatever it was this time caused my father to scream obscenities and kick at me. I cowered on the ground, covering my head, expecting him to beat me.

Then I heard a body being slammed against the side of a horse trailer. When I looked up, my grandfather had my father pinned and was shouting at him that he was never to speak to me that way again.

My grandfather was a working-class man who wore a cowboy hat. He thought horse sense trumped educated guesses. He worked as a school bus driver, a car salesman — and then, in his mid-40s, he started a logging business and ran it successfully until he retired. There were many reasons to admire him, but it was his action out by the barn that night that first made him a hero to me.

My father did not stop viewing my mother and me as his possessions simply because we had left him. He was once caught breaking into the garage of the woman across the street so he could monitor our activity.

To safeguard us, my grandfather would sometimes patrol the yard with a pistol. My grandmother, meanwhile, protected my sanity. Every afternoon after lunch, I’d rest on the sofa next to her and list all of the people in my life who loved me. It was a daily ritual, this recital of the family members who loved me. If I forgot a name, a great aunt or a second cousin, she would remind me, and each day the list seemed to grow.

For every child in the foster care system, there are at least 20 children being raised by relatives, often by grandparents. This is in many cases the best possible alternative, helping not only to keep the family structure intact but also to save the government money. Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, says, “Conservatively, if even half of the children being raised outside the foster care system in ‘grandfamilies’ were to enter the system, it would cost taxpayers more than $6.5 billion a year.”

The sudden addition of two people to their household can’t have been easy for my grandparents. Like the majority of grandparents raising grandchildren, they weren’t wealthy. And, as today, there was little in the way of government financial assistance available to them. If a child has been ordered removed from a parent’s care, caretaking relatives may qualify for financial help, and in many cases, the relatives’ intervention is able to prevent a child having to go into foster care. Shouldn’t that be supported too?

Last week, I buried my grandfather. I stood next to his casket and looked down at the marble slab next to it that marked my grandmother’s grave. A minister read Bible verses, but it was the voices I remembered from childhood that comforted me. In my mind I heard my grandfather telling me I was just as good as the next person. I heard my grandmother whispering in my ear once again that I would never know just how much she loved me.

My grandfather lived to be 101. Macular degeneration had robbed him of his sight by the end, but not his memories. During my final visit with him, he told me that he dreamed of me. He said that our times as a family filled his sleeping hours.

Just days before that conversation, I had dreamed of him. I was once again standing in my grandparents’ living room. He and my grandmother were sitting in their matching recliners. Through the screen door I could make out the lush St. Augustine grass that he meticulously cared for and the blooming azalea bush that wrapped around the pine tree. And when I woke up, I remember feeling a kind of peace I haven’t felt in a long time — the kind I had as a boy living under their protection.

• Morris is the author of three novels, including “Slow Way Home,” the story of a boy caught up in a custody battle between the grandparents who are raising him and his addicted mother.

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