_Families on the Edge
Advocates say grandparent-headed families need additional help.
She cannot be certain of the month — it was so many years ago — but it was summertime. She is certain of that. In the summer her prized collard greens reach for the rooftops in the backyard. In the summer the old women cool themselves in church with embroidered fans. In the summer northeast Portland feels oppressive after a few weeks without rain.
Leaving behind a
life of leisure, Eva
she assumes custody
of her daughter's five
During one of those oppressive summer nights a sudden noise roused Grandma Eva from her sleep. Her granddaughter, little Natasha, was alone in the living room crying. A few months earlier Natasha and her two older brothers, Gene and Jimmy, were taken from their mother, Lisa, separated from one another and placed with foster families all over the state of Oregon. Then Eva came and took custody of all three. This was their first night together as a family.
Barely awake, Eva slipped into her bathrobe and followed the sound of weeping into the living room. There she found Natasha, still a toddler and unsteady on her feet, standing behind the curtains, pressing against the glass, staring out the window like a prisoner.
"They say, 'But grandma you
old.' … Yes, I'm old. With old
values, old beliefs. Someday,
maybe, they will appreciate me."
"Well, I just held her and cried," Eva says. "Because I knew she'd been doing the same thing inside those strangers' houses: looking out the window, looking for a familiar face. Looking for momma."
To Natasha, Eva was just another stranger, but Eva knew something that little Natasha couldn't possibly have known: momma was not going to appear in that window. Grandma was momma now.
Today Eva, now sixty–two, is still caring for her daughter Lisa's children in the same northeast Portland home. In the United States, six million children, or approximately one in twelve, live in a home where the primary caregiver is a grandparent or other relative, according to the 2000 Census. More than two million of these children are cared for by a grandparent alone, without the presence of a parent in the household. The number of these families increased by 53 percent during the last decade.
Children are removed from their birth parents' care for any number of reasons — a parent's mental or physical illness, death, spousal or child abuse, incarceration or poverty — but according to a study by the Brookdale Foundation, the most common reason is parental substance abuse.
Grandma Eva can attest to that. Lisa, who is now forty, is currently incarcerated and could not be contacted for this article. She has struggled with drug addiction for most of her adult life, rendering her incapable of caring for her own children. When the children were first taken from Lisa in the summer of 1988, Gene was four years old, and he could already change Jimmy's diapers. Somebody had to.
At the time, Eva was living in Los Angeles with her new husband of nine months. One of the reasons Eva moved to California was to distance herself from her daughter. She felt she was enabling Lisa's destructive behavior and that, perhaps, if she were hundreds of miles away Lisa would be forced to straighten out her life.
After a decade as a nurse and almost two decades as a manager of a Tupperware facility, Eva had been looking forward to retirement. When she learned that her grandchildren were in foster care, however, she took the next flight back to Portland. Her life of leisure would have to be put on hold.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.
Not so long before, Lisa was the one running from Eva. The death of Lisa's father when she was fifteen years old greatly affected her, Eva says. "She couldn't handle it." Lisa eventually ran away from home. After the police found her, she ran away again. Eva says Lisa fell in with the wrong crowd.
It was not long before she got in trouble with the law. Eva says that during one of the court hearings Lisa excused herself, went to the bathroom and jumped out a second–story window. When the police caught her they sent her to a boarding school where she faked a serious illness and jumped out of a moving car on the way to the hospital. She disappeared again for several months.
Eva watched all of this with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Her first two daughters grew up to be responsible adults, but she did not know how to parent Lisa. As a mother, Eva was all out of tricks.
When Eva told her husband she was moving back to Portland permanently to adopt her grandchildren, he was not happy. He refused to sign the adoption papers. He did not want to be a father again. He did not want to share Eva. It was difficult but Eva did what she felt she had to do: she filed for divorce and adopted them by herself.
Perhaps Grandma Eva's willingness to turn her life upside–down for her grandchildren relates to her past. She was raised by her grandmother in Linden, Texas until she was fifteen years old. She did not know her parents until she moved to Portland as a teenager.
When Eva was young, she remembers being embarrassed by her grandmother. In church she would sing louder than everyone else in the congregation. "Now I find myself singing loud just like her," Eva says of her grandmother. "I am who I am today because of her."
Unlike her grandmother, however, Eva was caring for more than one child. She was also recently divorced, without a job and with very little savings. Eva needed help, so she approached the children's other grandmother, the father's mother. "I said, 'It took two to get these kids.' But she said, 'I'm just sorry, that's your problem.' She had a big house, but the kids never saw it. Never had so much as a drink of water there."
Much to Eva's surprise she could not even get her own family and friends to babysit for her. She had to take the kids everywhere she went. "When they'd see me they'd say, 'Here comes Eva with all them babies.' But none of them was there. I've had to do it alone."
She sent the kids to Head Start, and once they started school she drove them across town so that they could attend all–day kindergarten. Just as she was starting to get a handle on her new life, she received a phone call — Lisa was pregnant again.
Born in 1989, one year after Natasha, and taken from Lisa when she was four days old, Shawntay was quickly placed in medical foster care in southeast Portland. It would take Eva three years and a court battle to get custody of her. The foster mother did not want to give her up.
"She loved Shawntay," Eva says. "We went to court. She starts saying things, trying to discredit me. She really was lying but she wanted that baby so bad. She was going to do whatever she could to get her."
After a long trial the court awarded custody to Eva. "Why would I leave one of these siblings out there when I have all the rest of them right here? I wanted all of them."
Lisa's struggle with substance abuse would land her in and out of drug treatment centers and jail. The last time Lisa was released from prison she was not out a week before she attacked a pregnant woman. Lisa broke the stranger's nose and threw her down a flight of stairs. Lisa was locked up for two more years. She is still serving time for that conviction and is scheduled to be released in April 2005.
Many years ago, Eva told her daughter that she would never visit her in jail and that she would not let the children visit her there either. If she wanted to be a part of the family she would have to stay out of trouble. Years went by and they barely spoke. Lisa was in jail when she gave birth for the fifth time. In August 1989 she was driven from the jailhouse to the Oregon Health and Science University where she gave birth to a baby girl. She was immediately driven back to jail. Lisa never got to see or hold her daughter.
Two days later Eva received a call. The doctor said, "We have this little baby. What are we going to do?"
Eva did not hesitate. "I'll be there."
Most of the babies were in a large room with their mothers. In a separate room there was one little baby all by herself. Six pounds and two ounces and no name. The doctors handed her to Eva. She walked out the door. Eva could not find her car she was crying so much.
"You should see that baby now," Eva says. "She is a blessed child."
Eva named her Mariea. When Mariea was nine years old she handed Eva a piece of paper that said "To Grandma." It was a poem: "The Real Me."
Sometimes I go on the porch and just cry
Sometimes I have dreams about my mom
If she would just act right
I cry every night about my mother
When I was little I always cried.
Eva puts on a black gown and an African–patterned shawl. It is Sunday — time for church. Eva has attended the same church for more than forty years. She is the choir director and leads a women's Bible study group twice a month. She is known throughout the congregation for her motto: "Nobody does you like Jesus."
Eva looks young for her age. "The kids keep me young, that's what they say." But she says it like she does not believe it.
"I've raised two generations of children," she says. "Nonstop. And I'm tired. I'm tired."
Gene has graduated from high school and moved out on his own. Jimmy is eighteen and will graduate soon. He and the other children are still living with Eva in the same Portland house, but they are nowhere to be seen this Sunday morning. Eva says they hate her church. They say it is dead. After they were grown Eva demanded that they go, but she is tired of fighting that fight.
Just as she was starting to get a handle on her new life,
she received a phone call — Lisa was pregnant again.
Now that the kids are teenagers there seem to be more fights than ever before. With more than four decades between them, Eva and her grandchildren rarely see eye to eye. For instance, the girls want to wear short skirts, high heels and huge earrings, but Eva will not allow it. "They say, 'But grandma, you old.' 'Yeah, I'm old, but you ain't wearing it. You ain't going to leave here looking like some hoochie momma.' I got that word from them: hoochie momma. 'Grandma, you old.' Yes, I'm old. With old values, old beliefs. Someday, maybe, they will appreciate me."
Eva remembers when her daughter Lisa dressed like a hoochie momma as a teenager. She remembers. She sees the temptations all around them. The adult world is slowly creeping in and Eva is worried.
"I don't want them to go through the same thing," she says. "I don't want to see it happen again, what happened to their mother. If one of them has to go to jail or … "
She pauses. The possibilities are too painful. "It would just kill me. I just don't know how I would handle it."
It was September 11, 2003. Eva was leading her Saturday women's Bible study group at church. The lesson in her study guide was titled "The Sincere Love of a Christian Woman." There was a Biblical passage at the top:
Eva began reading the study guide out loud to the dozen women seated around her. "The mother who gives her love to her disobedient, disrespectful and selfish child is giving unselfish love. She will go to the crack house to pull her child out. She will go to the jailhouse to visit her child."
"If I haven't done anything
but raise them in a house
together as brothers and
sisters, I've done that."
Eva stopped reading. She could not speak. She took out a pen and underlined the passage. Then Eva admitted to the group that she had a daughter in prison whom she had not seen in more than a year. In fact, in all the years that Lisa had been in and out of prison, Eva had never once visited her daughter in jail. "I make a commitment to go see my child," Eva said, and the women cheered.
When Eva entered the jail and saw her daughter for the first time in prison clothing, she broke down in tears. The two cried in each other's arms. Eva says she cannot remember seeing Lisa so happy. Lisa told her that all the other women had visitors while she was left alone in her cell. On her second visit, Eva brought her three granddaughters to see their mother. Not all the children could visit at once; the correctional facility allowed only four guests to enter at a time. Eva and the kids try to go to the jail at least once a month — all the children except Gene. He refuses to go.
Since Eva's first visit, Lisa has been calling every day and sending what Eva calls love letters. "Lisa says, 'I apologize for what I put you through ever since my daddy died. I put you through some things. I'm sorry. But, when I get out … '"
"When I get out. I've heard that for years," Eva says.
Despite the disappointments of the past, Eva still believes that Lisa will win her battle with substance abuse. "I live and hope that each time is going to be the right time … that she is going to get it together. I believe. I have to. That is my child."
Meanwhile, Eva is still grandma and momma to her daughter's children. "If I haven't done anything but raise them in a house together as brothers and sisters, I've done that," Eva says. "I've kept them together as a family. They've lived in one house. If I didn't have them, they would be all over the place. They wouldn't even know each other."
She stops and thinks for a moment, and then she says, as if she were talking to herself, "I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. Yeah, I would."