Parenting again, though not by choice

  • Rich Wandschneider

 

Just a year ago, I turned 65, had a modest Social Security income and half-time job with the nonprofit I'd founded 20 years earlier, and I was divorced -- amicably -- after a 34-year marriage. Home was a small house in the small town of Joseph in northeast Oregon, but I was making frequent trips to Portland and Salem to meet with friends, eat in city restaurants, listen to music and see plays. I'd also begun writing a book about Turkey based on my Peace Corps years there, from 1965-1970, and was planning a return visit.

This all changed radically with one phone call and a trip to Portland for a very different reason. This time, I was going to pick up a grandson, 8, and granddaughter, 9. Their father, a single parent and my son, had just landed in a hospital. His prognosis was uncertain, and it seemed I had to become a "parent" once again.

At the time, I didn't know whether it would be for weeks or years, though in my own mind I couldn't think past a year. Fortunately, the children's arrival coincided with the beginning of school, and the kids had been here often enough to know a few people. And grandma was nearby and would help.

That was August 2008. Memories of those first days are scattered, but I know the school was great. The principal said it would be good for the kids to think in terms of a semester at least; a year would be better. Friends threw a surprise birthday party in October and snuck a new dryer in the back door while the party went on up front -- the washer and dryer had gone the other way in the divorce. I'd bought a washer but not a dryer, hanging out my clothes in summer and in front of the woodstove in winter. The kids jumped onto soccer teams and Oriana, the fourth-grader, was soon riding horses on weekends. An around the corner neighbor also had a second-grade boy and fourth-grade girl, and we got into the habit of sharing rides and childcare.

I remember being exhausted at first. I had to cook for three, get them to school on time. I remembered that the big thing about parenting was that the kids were always there the next morning, and that they have needs of their own at times of their own. Grandparents, of course, get to choose their moments of bonding and playtime, and then -- they walk away. I also remember asking myself whether I had yelled so much at my two sons. Do we develop selective memories about our parenting, effectively blocking out our silly moments, our frustrating attempts at reasoning with a very tired 8-year-old, or explaining multiplication to a distraught 9-year-old?

I also soon found out that I was not alone; there were other stories like mine. A Portland friend, a retired English professor, told me almost in passing that he had lived with his grandparents for three years, from 9 to 12. "Saved my life, he said. A woman in the local Safeway stopped me to ask how things were going. She reminded me that we were the same age, adding that she'd been raised by a grandmother; her mom "just took off" when she was 6.

I was certainly the oldest full-time caregiver at most school meetings and soccer games, but I wasn't always the only graybeard in the room. The news was full of stories about grandmas raising grandchildren, and sons and daughters coming home from broken relationships with kids in tow. I'd read and listened with some interest, but now, it was me.

In November, almost three months into my new life, I took a weekend off and went to Portland for the Oregon Book Awards. After the ceremony, a few friends gathered at Cassidy's Bar to rehash the evening and catch up on our lives. The crowd had thinned, the few of us remaining were finishing the wine and drinking coffee for the road.

My old friend John Daniel looked across the table at me and told me he admired what I was doing, especially since I didn't know when my son's mental condition would improve. I said this was not such a big deal and reminded him that he and his wife, Marilyn, had had a mother with dementia live with them for three years. He'd even written a book about it.

"You're right," John said. "We don't choose these things, do we?" Then he paused: "They choose us, and we can choose not to do them, but then we have to live with ourselves forever."

Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and parents in Joseph, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...