Sunday, July 21, 2013

On the Occasion of My Grandson's Seventeenth Birthday

Posted by Desert Crone

I must warn you that this post is not focused on politics, which my posts usually are. Quite the contrary it is very personal; therefore, it may not interest you whatsoever. Furthermore, I'm ashamed to admit,  it rambles, but I hope this post, like so many personal pieces often do, resonates with some readers at some level.

The funny thing about writing is sometimes it takes me on journey that surprises me because I often end up at a place I had no intention of going. And so it is with this post.  Originally, I was going to address the adage that "all too often people will vote against their own interests."  It was my grandson who enlightened me about the psychology behind this paradoxical behavior. He wasn't sharing any knowledge he had gleaned from a text book or a teacher; his knowledge was an insight gained from observation.

This post, or essay if you will, quickly took on a life of its own, and rather than try to divert its path or twist it painfully into something it was never meant to be, I went with it, not against it. I felt context, which would be in the form of background,  was important; however, background soon gave way to biography. Before I realized it, I was describing the hopes and shattered dreams of so many Americans as well as the resolute spirit which creates survivors rather victims out of so many of us. This post is not only a tribute to my ex son-in-law but to all of those who have struggled just to provide the basic necessities for their families.  But most of all, this post is a love letter to my grandson.

My ex son-in-law, my grandson's father, had a rough time as a kid. Like so many kids struggling with serious dysfunction at home, he had a difficult time in school. Eventually, he was sent to the alternative school, from which he was also expelled, but later at some point he earned a GED.  He is very intelligent and talented, and after working minimum wage jobs for years, he landed a well-paying position with a privately owned tech company. Over the previous years he absorbed every technical aspect concerning PCs he could, which eventually paid off for him.

Paul had never owned a home; in fact, after he and my daughter divorced, he lived with his grandparents in a city 5 or 6 hours away from where my daughter lives. When he married his current wife, my grandson's step-mother, he was determined to buy his first home. His wife, however, was unable to hold onto any kind of job because she could not deal with any workplace stress or conflict. You see, in an unimaginable tragedy a few years before she married Paul, her then husband shot and killed their infant daughter while she held the baby girl in her arms.   Understandably, both  Paul and his wife yearned for the kind of normalcy they had always been denied. Thus, I think they were easy prey for unscrupulous mortgage companies.

And as the story so often goes, they bought a nice home on a nice street within walking distance of good schools for their kids. About this time my grandson, now in middle school, and my daughter were having serious conflicts and after much discussion between my grandson and his mom and dad, the three decided he would live with his father. My grandson thrived with his dad. His grades came up, he formed friendships at his new school, and seemed to be very content.

After a couple of years, Paul lost his job in the collapse of the economy. The owner of the tech company simply closed his business and walked away, leaving Paul and the other employees without jobs or prospects for any. And it got worse. Paul had taken out an adjustable rate mortgage because that was the only way he could afford a home, and because he was not very worldly wise, he didn't understand the ramifications of that decision until it was too late.

Soon Paul  was without a job and a home, which was foreclosed on when he could no longer make the ballooning payments. Now jobless and homeless, Paul was forced to take unemployment and food stamps.  He found a house he could barely afford to rent in one of the most rundown, unsafe neighborhoods in the city. He eventually secured a minimum wage job, but his family still relies on assistance just to get by.

Through all his dad's hardships, my grandson has remained fiercely loyal to his father and undaunted by his circumstances. A couple of times both his mother and I have asked him if he would like to move back here, and without hesitation, he has answered no.  I once offered to send money to his dad, which Paul emphatically refused, and later my grandson asked me never to offer money again. He explained to me that his father was a proud man who was determined to support his family without handouts. I did not remind my grandson that his dad already takes help in the form of state and federal assistance, and from my daughter, who, although not required to, sends a generous amount to Paul for child support every month. I am not sure why Paul drew the line with my help, but really it's unimportant. However, my grandson and I did collaborate on ways I could help and together we hatched a plan. Occasionally my grandson calls to ask me to send him enough money to take his family to Burger King for dinner, which is a real treat for them. His father never asks his son how he can manage it, but my guess he knows and allows me this one gesture.

On the months my grandson isn't here for holidays or summer, my husband and I go to see him for a weekend. We get a hotel room, and our grandson spends the weekend with us. We spoil him rotten by taking him shopping and to the movies as well as out to his favorite restaurants. I'm not sure how he picks those restaurants since I doubt he has never eaten at a single one.  Generally the practice was for Paul to drop our grandson off at the hotel on Friday and pick him up on Sunday; however, on this one Sunday his car wouldn't start, so we took our grandson home. My grandson confided to us that his dad was ashamed of their house and didn't want us to see it.

Home was a rundown house with a hard-packed dirt yard surrounded by a dilapidated fence. The street was pitted with large potholes and much of the asphalt was covered with sand or just gone.  Junked appliances were abandoned along with old tires and a rusted out car in an empty lot across from the house. Like so many similar streets in so many other cities, the city isn't concerned about street maintenance  or trash pick up,  much less the hazards that the vacant lot presented. In all aspects of society it isn't enough that poverty alone marginalizes people but their own governments do so as well. For the first time in his young life, my grandson felt the effects of a pervasive callous attitude directed at the poor. My grandson has observed that his neighborhood is neglected because the residents have no money nor power. Yet, unlike most children in poverty, he could have easily escaped, but he remained resolute in his loyalty to his father. As he once told me, "My dad needs me."

When I walked into the house, I noticed daylight peeping through cracks in a wall and a closed door. The floors were  either covered with grimy frayed carpet or yellowing cracked and curled  linoleum.  Any nice furniture they once had was replaced by shabby broken pieces left on the street or purchased from a junk store. Now I'm not naive. I've seen abject poverty. You can't live in New Mexico and be unaware of the poverty that surrounds you. Neither can you be a teacher and be blind to poverty's impact on kids. When I was a teacher, I gave rides home to plenty of kids, most of whom lived in poverty, and my heart broke for everyone of those kids as I dropped them off at similar homes.   But I will tell you, seeing my grandson, my own flesh,  standing in that house was not only heartbreaking but  gut-wrenching as well.  Don't we all want our children and grandchildren to be better off and more successful than we were?

As I became a seasoned teacher and learned really to hear, not just listen, to my students, I was struck by the uncanny instincts and insights into human nature that children raised in dysfunction often exhibit.  My grandson also has this gift of insight that accompanies hyper-vigilance. One day after he arrived here for this summer, he was telling us about his progress on the guitar. Like his father my grandson is an accomplished musician, so one Christmas we all chipped in to buy him an an Ibenex electric guitar. That same year my brother-in-law, a well-known and accomplished guitar maker, also made my grandson a guitar, sort of a hybrid created out of many guitars. That day, he matter of factly said, "At the end of the month,  if we are broke or our food stamps are gone, I let Dad pawn the guitar you bought me but never the one Uncle Jim made for me." Of course, a gift made with love is more cherished than a gift given with love, and so my grandson made his choice of which could be pawned so his family could eat. Besides, he trusted his dad to get his guitar out of pawn when his check came.

Recently, we had another discussion about his dad, the topic of which was going to be the original topic of this post. Oh well, so it goes. My grandson told me that his dad was very conservative in his politics, which I already knew. I told him I was surprised because the GOP opposed food stamps and unemployment insurance, both of which helped his dad. I shared that I didn't understand how people could vote against their own interests. Finally, I heard an answer to this conundrum that made sense to me coming from a 17-year-old kid, "My dad doesn't like the people who are most like we are." My grandson continued saying that when Paul railed against people who received "handouts," he would remind his dad that they did too.  His father always replied that "no, we are different." My grandson went on to observe that his dad wasn't voting against his self-interest in his eyes but against the party that represents the welfare state, which he resented needing.  He projected his resentment toward himself onto others and was blind to the idea that for many, receiving assistance was a temporary state. That was the most negative statement (although I'm not sure it can even be called that) I'd ever heard my grandson say about his dad. But I don't think he saw it as criticism at all, but simply one of the many paradoxes in human beings.

My grandson is here for his last summer before he graduates from high school. With his high SAT scores and excellent grades I'm certain he will receive scholarship offers, so I don't know how many more summers I'll have with him. One thing is certain I will cherish every heart to heart I have this summer with this remarkable young man.

PS Today on his birthday we went to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. When I asked him if he'd like to go with me, he answered yes without any hesitation. As we strolled through the small museum, looking and commenting about some of O'Keefe's lesser known works, I couldn't help but think what a incredibly lucky woman I am to be blessed to have this remarkable young man for my grandson.


Broadway Carl said...

Beautiful read. I too find people like Paul who vote against their own self interests for exactly the same reason. They don't and never will see themselves in that light. Sometimes it's class driven, sometimes it's racially driven, but in either case they don't see themselves as the "problem" they rail against because they would never consider themselves as something other than middle class - even when the paycheck isn't there to back it up.

"Class" is thought of inherently as culture and not a purely financially numerical statistic. In the minds of many, the opposite of upper class is "low" class, meaning worthless. And who would admit to being worthless? So ultimately, one votes against their own self interests because they don't consider themselves part of that crowd; the crowd who in their eyes are the problem.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, my friend. High praise indeed. I'm glad you enjoyed. DesertCroneNM

Anonymous said...

This is why I love you, Jo! You, Trees, and your 2nd born** have imparted a gift to your grandson of critical thinking and he is blossoming. He has to get into college. Can he qualify for Pell grants or similar? <3 <3 <3 ferallike

**If you'll recall, I'm your first born. ;P

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