Adopted at 52

By Jean Campbell

oNormal>At first I didn’t catch on when members of the group I was traveling with wanted to know whether my granddaughters were my son’s children or my daughter’s. Eventually I realized they were trying to figure out which of my children is in an interracial marriage. My granddaughters are beautiful with their thick black hair and brownish-black eyes and features that reflect their Latino heritage. I have long forgotten that they don’t look related to me.

oNormal>Each time someone asked me about the girls, my granddaughters would look at me and listen intently as I answered. They would smile and nod when I said, “I’m adopted.”

oNormal>Seven years ago, 6-year-old Elena told me that she did not have any grandmas in America and she needed one. I told her that I didn’t have any grandchildren and I wanted them. We decided then and there to adopt each other. Elena’s sister, Maria, was just 1 at the time – too young to be an active part of the adoption scheme that Elena and I worked out. She has grown up knowing me as her American grandma.

oNormal>Elena choosing me as her grandma thrilled me. I know how important and special a grandma can be to a child. My grandmother and I had a wonderful time together. It was a role I wanted and didn’t know I would ever have. My only child was dating someone, but didn’t seem in any great hurry to get married and have children.

oNormal>Elena is about four feet tall, with thick, silky, shoulder-length black hair. Her eyes are so dark brown they are almost black. She has fair skin with a sprinkle of freckles over her nose. She’s in a class for gifted eighth-graders in her school, and she plays violin and takes voice lessons.

oNormal>Early on it became obvious to Elena that desserts were important to me. One day, as Elena and I were sharing a piece of cake, she said, “Grandma, every night I ask God that you never get diabetes because you love treats so much.” I told her that was a great prayer and asked her to keep saying it every night.

Maria is tiny and looks 4 years old instead of 8. Her short black hair looks and feels like cornsilk. Her brownish-black eyes are framed by long, thick eyelashes. Maria is in third grade and a good student.

Although born in the United States, Elena sees herself and speaks of herself as Mexican. When she was 18 months old, her mother sent her to Mexico to stay with her grandmother because there were problems in her marriage and she feared for Elena’s safety. When Elena returned to America at 4 years of age, she barely knew her parents and did not understand English. For months, she cried several times a day for her family and friends in Mexico. To her, Grandma in Mexico City was her mommy and her birth mother almost a stranger. Elena began comforting herself with food, a habit that she tries hard to fight today.

Maria considers herself an American, does not like to visit Mexico and demands that people speak to her in English.

My adoption came about through my volunteer work with women in the local Mexican community. I met Maria first. She accompanied her mother, Lupe, to class. Elena would arrive after school let out and spent time on the computer while I coached her mother in how to interview for a job. Sometimes, when we finished, we would take the girls for an ice cream or a trip to the library. Lupe was and is still shy. With no family in the United States, she is also lonely.

The girls live in a neighborhood of immigrants from rural Mexico. Most are poor and undereducated but willing to work hard to earn a living. Many husbands do not want their wives to learn any more English than is necessary to pick up cleaning jobs. Babies come regularly, as birth control is not a choice for most of the women. 

My greatest challenge as Elena and Maria’s grandmother is not to impose my values, but rather to help them see that they have choices. Although they are Americans, they do not live like Americans. English is a language they use in school and with Grandma. At home and in their neighborhood, they speak and hear only Spanish. In their immediate circle, there are few adult females who are educated and have a career.

The girls visit me at least once a month, sometimes staying overnight. We go to children’s theaters and museums, explore the city, visit landmarks, and see all the latest kid films. I was the first of my friends to see Shrek! We finish each visit with a trip to the local pizza parlor or to a ’50s-era diner, where I reminisce about how it was when I was growing up. They get a kick out of my singing along with the jukebox to songs I danced to as a teen.

The past few years have been rough for them and I have worn many hats as their grandma. The girls began to display behaviors typical of abused children. Maria had problems eating and sleeping, was afraid to let her mother out of her sight and cried often. Elena ate compulsively and was afraid to be alone. When their father was present, they were always checking his facial expressions.

When I asked Lupe, she began to talk about what was going on at home. I shared that, in America, it is against the law to beat your wife or your children. I explained there are safe houses where you can go to get away from the violence. We discussed going to family court for an order of protection and counseling for her and the children.

Lupe told me she was afraid to stand up to her husband. In her community, the man makes the rules within the home; beating children is discipline and beating your wife is no one’s business. Domestic violence is prevalent and divorce is seldom a choice. Religious training, poverty, lack of employment skills, limited English skills, a house full of young children and fear of retribution keep many women in marriages that are dangerous for them and for their children.

Lupe found the courage to have her husband removed from their apartment when he beat Elena with his belt because she forgot to put her toys away. Lupe feared repercussions, not only from her husband, but from his family as well as her family in Mexico.

During the months that followed, I provided moral support for Lupe as she worked her way through the legal and social service systems. My apartment became a safe haven for the girls, a place where they could come and know their father would not call several times a day and harass them. Maria’s appetite returned by the second day of her visits. Elena would not overeat or sneak food.

During our time together the girls want to do what many children do with their grandmas. We make cookies, play Scrabble™ and Clue™ and spend time on the computer. They come to work with me, where they get to see another side of Grandma, the side that shows them that women can have careers and take care of themselves.

Holidays are fun for them and for me. I introduced the girls to turnips, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie our first Thanksgiving together. Christmas brought the joy of their first Christmas stockings, dolls I made to look like them and the new tastes of Swedish meatballs, roast beef rare, and spritz cookies and cheesecake. I now enjoy salsa, tamales and flan.

It has been seven years since Elena asked me to be her grandmother. Yet I still get a thrill when I answer the phone and the voice on the other end says, “Hi Grandma, it’s me!”

Jean Campbell is a freelance writer who specializes in writing for nonprofit organizations.
From Get Up & Go, a United Parenting Pubcation, November 2004.