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When Spring and Summer come then pass,
And Autumn's calm bids peace at last,
What fateful tug at nature's string
Has turned the Autumn back to Spring?
The sleeping rose when stirred must rise,
Its bloom may tire but never dies,
A castaway adrift no more
Has washed upon love's waiting shore.
This poem, in its few short lines, attempts to capture the range of emotions uncovered when grandparents open their arms, their homes, and their hearts to become parents to their grandchildren. For these grandparents, the long-awaited rest which should follow from having seen their children through to adulthood is forever marred. As for the children, their turmoil is unmistakable as they are torn between the shock of their parents' absence and their relief that some merciful soul has tossed them a lifeline. For many of these children, the grandparents are the only thing which stands between them and the bitter unknown. The truth is, for these children, their grandparents' house is truly the last house on the block.
At least that was the case for me. Just like the nearly 4 million U.S. children who presently find themselves in their grandparents' care, I, too, found myself at the last house on the block. Like so many other children, my brother and I became the natural legacy of parents who were too young to make adult choices, too naïve to anticipate the full scope of parenthood, and who were wholly unprepared to meet the challenge.
My mother was barely 19 and my father 22 when this grim reality began to take hold. Here they were at the beginning of their adult lives. They had all of the promise of the future still ahead of them but they were bound by the reality of feeding a family of four on a factory-worker's income. They were suffocating under the weight of adult-sized pressures, and their marriage was falling apart.
Accused of infidelity and too fearful to fight, my mother fled. At 19, it was difficult for her to imagine whether losing custody or winning custody of her children would be more frightening. So she quietly gathered together what little evidence of this life she could fit into the trunk of her car and she disappeared. Her vanishing act subsequently forced my father and his two small children to move back in with his parents. Alone, he might have been able to cleanly move on with his life, but he was responsible for more than just himself now. After all, being a breadwinner had been his forte, what did he know about being a parent? He needed help.
The day my father, my brother, and I landed on my grandparents' doorstep, no one could have known that we had just joined the ranks of an emerging phenomenon. My grandmother was 42, and in an instant, she had been transformed back into a stay-at-home mom with a 9-month-old girl and a 22-month-old boy who were not even her own. Her life had been forever changed by a sequence of events in which she had not been a participant.
And so the sleeping rose, however tired, was forced to rise. And like the millions of other grandparents in her shoes, my grandmother held fast while job opportunities came and went and lunch invitations with an ever-dwindling circle of friends faded to black. Instead, she took her place alongside the other parents at our choir recitals, basketball games, and parent-teacher conferences. While my father's salary and time were spent pursuing things more appealing to a young, newly-single man, it was she who tirelessly clipped coupons and sniffed out sales like a bloodhound to make certain that my grandfather's janitor's paycheck could be stretched to feed us all.
But my story doesn't end here, and neither will yours. For most grandparents living this experience, it is impossible to see the future through the bleary-eyed haze of responsibilities and sleep-deprivation resulting from too many nights lying awake and wondering, "Am I doing the right thing?"
When the children are young and the scars of battle still fresh, it's hard enough to see the road ahead, let alone know if you've chosen the right one. Having been a child in a grandparent's care, I've been given the unique opportunity to speak from the future to those still shrouded in uncertainty.
To the many grandparents who make such loving sacrifices, I have just one thing to say: "Thank you." This is a phrase I'm certain you don't hear nearly often enough, but let me assure you that what you are doing is good, and meaningful , and it is right. I know that I, for one, am grateful that, when I arrived at the last house on the block, the door was opened and a place was made for me to call home.
Sally Houtman is a Chemical Dependency Counselor for Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "To Grandma's House, We Stay: When You Have to Stop Spoiling Your Grandchildren and Start Raising Them"
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Last House on the Block, by Sally Houtman