Many years ago: I have two daughters. When the youngest was seventeen she was ensnared by a cult church. No reasoning could dissuade her. I invited elders of the church to my home to discuss their views on the values of our home. We discussed women’s rights. We discussed racial equality. In 1982 gay rights were not on my radar. Shelly listened, mesmerized. Later I probed to see if she understood these men considered women inferior and blacks even more inferior. She only heard the words of persuasion.
She was seventeen. I would not give permission for her to join. She knew my objections and I spent until her eighteenth birthday discussing them. When she was eighteen she joined the church, with her father’s support. Nothing in our relationship changed except I forbad proselytizing.
I sent her to college, and when that did not work, to an excellent nanny school. With that training she obtained a position a state away. In her church she met a young man and married when she was twenty one, after a year or two of dating. Shortly after her marriage her husband confessed to being gay, which their church does not tolerate. It could, however, “cure” him. He spent ten years in counseling to be cured, until he did something stupid that sent him to prison for three years. He left behind four young children and a wife with no employable skills.
Shelly went back to school to finish the nursing degree she began while she was married. The three oldest children lived here; Laura, a brand new baby, lived with Shelly’s church friend, Phyllis. Janice took the brunt of those years and the three children; we had a weaving business. Jan supervised the studio and house; I was at an art show three or four days every week, selling. The last year was the most difficult; Jan was winding down the studio and starting quilting. My most vivid memory is standing at shows, holding something for support, smiling at people, talking through the fog of pain and counting down to a new hip in the fall.
My son-in-law’s name is James; I like him. He’s been punished, it’s behind us. He and Shelly divorced while he was in prison. Before prison his technical skills earned him a living that kept his family very well. Technology left him behind in those years; there no longer is enough money to support four children without income from Shelly.
Although Shelly and the children moved back to the far end of Lake County, more than an hour distant, we remained involved as a family. All of my extended family looked after the interests and some of the finances of the home she established, near her church. Phyllis was a member of the household, an excellent arrangement at the time, I thought. Phyllis now is well over eighty years of age, bent double, walks occasionally with two canes, but generally uses a wheel chair or stays in bed, with COPD and other ailments of age.
Janice, Tom and I assume a good deal of child care responsibility at school holidays and summer vacations. We have done this for the last six years that Shelly has been on her own.
Two years ago: After about eight years of being single, Shelly went looking for a boyfriend. After a couple of stormy and tearful endings she settled on Dave. I met him once; a year and a half ago. A taciturn man, extremely difficult to draw out, I came away with no conclusions. The girls blandly inform us Dave will not marry their mother until all children are out of the house.
There were changes in Shelly’s home that I did not like. She went from poor housekeeping to an unkempt house. At every visit Jan and I sent children scurrying to sweep garbage from the floors, wash many days of accumulated dirty dishes, fold laundry and put it away, and so forth. Eventually we stopped visiting, and our home was the escape for at least Emily and Laura. We listened and heard stories we did not like. Basically, Shelly was at work, asleep, or at Dave’s apartment. Arguments between Emily and her mother escalated. Worst, every summer the children arrived more overweight than the previous summer, the result of lack of parental supervision. Phyllis was the primary caregiver, and the children gave her old fashioned and rigid views no respect.
July, 2012: Laura came here the day school ended in June; I retrieved Emily from her home a week later. Hamilton preferred to stay at home for the summer. I entered a home in which I could not take a breath; cat urine odor permeated everything. I didn’t look at the laundry strewn living room or the filthy kitchen; I looked at my pretty little five foot two granddaughter, lips swollen from the polluted atmosphere, black circles under her eyes, and rotund at well over two hundred pounds. Shelly was at Dave’s. I said to myself, “This child is not coming back to this house.”
Janice and Tom and I listened to the girls chatter about home, especially Emily. She was very aware of the household state of affairs, and even lightheartedly told how she and Hamilton, her sixteen year old brother, would take stock at night and figure out how to pack three school lunches the next day using two cans of soup. Shelly was at Dave’s. We knew we must take in the three youngest, Laura, Emily and Hamilton. Rebekah, the oldest, was graduated high school and working at a fast food place.
At our family Fourth of July picnic Janice and I isolated Shelly, told her we knew she was having a rough time financially and possibly in a life turmoil about a boyfriend; we wanted to take the three youngest, enroll them in school here, take financial responsibility for them. It was a difficult conversation but we persevered. Shelly agreed for Emily and Laura, but said the decision would be up to Hamilton. She would talk to him about it on their way home. He said he did not want to come.
After everyone was gone that evening we told Emily and Laura they would not be going back. Two little faces flowed tears. “It will be OK,” we assured them. “No, Gramma, these are tears of joy.”
I talked to Hamilton and so did my older daughter, Beth, but he refused to come. He would not leave his church, although we told him we would take him to the identical church near our home, the same he and his family attended the years they lived here. But he would not come and Shelly would not make him come. He was the only family member left in this church that caught Shelly up so long ago. Rebekah, no longer a minor, would not attend. Emily, thirteen, refused to go. Laura went, in tears, with Phyllis. Shelly goes to Dave’s mega church.
Beth and her husband told me they supported my guardianship of the girls completely, and were sorry we could not persuade Hamilton. According to Beth, the move was several years overdue and they would do anything they could. Her husband volunteered money, a computer for the girls. I asked only that they find ways in include Hamilton in their many family outings, in hope they could lend positive male influence. They agreed this was a good idea. I realize it never happened.
September, Labor Day, 2012: I obtained a grandparent power of attorney for the children, sent Emily off to band camp after finding her a tetanus shot at the only place that could see her on short notice, the county health department. Well child visits at our doctor showed both girls in need of school required vaccinations, but Emily’s healthy eating and bike riding and band marching had trimmed her down to about two hundred pounds and Laura remained only slightly overweight at one hundred. And, each girl beamed and smiled at the doctor and said she was happy.
For Labor Day weekend Shelly intended to take the girls to be with Dave and his son. Her plan would, in my opinion, put the girls in jeopardy, and I objected. Shelly did not listen to my reasoning; she sprang into an immediate defense. Actually, it was an offense, as in the best defense is a good offense. I had a power of attorney to do the parenting, but no authority!
When Shelly left with the girls I explained my dilemma to Jan and said I needed custody. She agreed, I called an attorney friend for a reference for a children’s attorney, got the reference and was able to get the attorney on the phone at once. I explained my problem and the attorney was in our living room Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. I expressed my gratitude and she said it was because there are children involved.
We explained the unhealthy environment the children came from and Shelly’s erratic behavior. The attorney said she would file on Tuesday for temporary custody to stop Shelly from removing the children and proceed with obtaining custody.
September 4, 2012: Shelly called in tears. She had been sent home from work. The next day she was fired from her nursing position. The cause was sleeping on the job, which I did not learn until weeks later. I asked her to determine the length of the insurance benefits for her children, as Laura had been referred to an ENT for her ear tubes. Over a week later, including her hospital stay for elective cosmetic surgery, Shelly was able to tell me insurance had expired the previous week. Laura’s visit to the ENT was half successful; one tube out and one to come out in the hospital. I scheduled the hospital visit for two weeks later; I had time to make changes if insurance was a problem.
Looking for options, I called my own insurance agent. He told me there are no stand alone policies for children. I asked Jim what to do and he said there were three options; Shelly could get COBRA benefits; she could buy insurance herself, or she could get Medicaid. Perhaps I was near tears; he asked for Shelly’s number and said he would personally call her, tell her she had three options and she must select one NOW! “I have kids myself, and I’m persuasive,” he told me. He also suggested, given her track record, I go myself to the welfare offices and begin the Medicaid application process for the girls.
Janice took me downtown, we found the welfare office and she dropped me off. It’s a building I’ve often driven past, the Sojurner Truth building. There are ten parking places and hundreds and hundreds of people. My cane and I stumped up the steps, went through the detector and stood confused, blocking the lobby. A policeman told me to take a number and go in. I did. I sat in an enormous room, packed with the hundreds and hundreds. Some talked to me. Some leaned on me. I held tight to the number and waited an hour and a half for it to be called. I went to the window that called me. I was told I had ten minutes of her time to get registered, and then I went back to a seat to wait again for a counselor to call my number.
My phone rang. Janice said Shelly had received her ultimatum call from my insurance agent, contacted her ex-husband; he would add all four children to his policy. I knew little of my son-in-law in the years he had been out of my life; I got in touch with him at once, standing in front of Sojurner Truth, waiting for Janice to come pick me up. I thanked him profusely; he said he only wished he had known.
The hearings: My daughter did not attend the first custody hearing in September, but told my attorney she would not grant custody. My son-in-law indicated to the magistrate by phone that he had no objection to his mother-in-law taking custody of his daughters. A status review was set for one month later. Shelly called and rescheduled that hearing because she and Dave would be on vacation. Another month later.
Back at home we had two little girls soldiering on. They loved their new home. They loved school. But their mother called and texted she would get them back. She is still their mother and always will be. They deserve a good mother. Shelly said she would be at a specific football game to see Emily in the band. Emily scoured the stands for her and finally texted “Where R U?” “In West Virginia. Tee Hee.” Emily’s stress level was too high for such a little girl.
We saw little of Beth and her husband after their children went home from summer at Camp 61. Beth did come once and give Emily lovely hair for her Homecoming Dance, in a pretty little size 14 dress. No dieting, just healthy eating. We saw Beth one more time at Thanksgiving. I called Beth often; my own stress level was almost over my head. I recall sobbing and sobbing, “I hate doing this to your sister; someday I’ll be dead and you two are all that are left and need to go on.” Actually, that was my only Polly Anna moment.
Jan went with me to the second hearing. I needed moral support. I expected my son-in-law at the hearing; he’d arranged the day off. Shelly was unemployed, and had the day off. The juvenile court house is at the end of Moraine Avenue, where I grew up. Mom used to say “Stay out of trouble; it’s a short walk up the street.” Two blocks previous to Moraine I counted off Davis Street to Jan and said that’s where we used to catch the bus.
This rescheduled hearing was in late October, late in the afternoon. We found James in the waiting area, and in chatting learned he has no car; he left Cleveland by bus in the morning, was in downtown Akron by noon, transferred, got off at Davis and walked to the court house, arriving shortly before we did. The last bus back left Davis Street at 5 pm; he figured he’d make it. We invited him to come home for supper; we’d take him back. James was tickled; he hadn’t seen the children since last Christmas! Now we were aghast. Simple explanation; Shelly was too involved with Dave to help him work out visitation dates across two counties by bus. But, he talked and texted to all of them. In fact, he underwrote the cell phones the three oldest used.
At the hearing Shelly refused to grant custody. I refused arbitration as I knew of nothing to arbitrate, and asked for an ad litem attorney for the girls and a trial. More big, big bucks out of my retirement savings! They were granted; we took James home and the girls literally jumped on him when he came in.
The ad litem, the in camera: The ad litem came to interview Jan, Tom and me on a day the girls were with their mother, in December. We set a private appointment for the girls a few days later and told them what was happening; they had their own attorney who would talk to them about what they wanted, make a recommendation to the magistrate and be with them to talk to the magistrate. Laura wondered why all this was necessary; they are happy here and don’t want to go back. I said their mother was determined to take them back, although we would not let that happen. A shudder ran through Laura from the top of her head and came out her toes. I held her hand. Emily is tough beyond her years, but these are children!
At the next hearing the ad litem looked straight at Shelly when giving her report, said the girls say they miss their brother and sister, but think they are where they belong. Because the ad litem had not yet interviewed the parents the hearing was continued another thirty days, to the end of this month. The girls in camera with the magistrate will be the same day. They get half a day off school. Yippee!
I have given Shelly, and later, James, reasonable visitation. It has been difficult to make Shelly understand the girls live here now, have a life, go to school, have activities. There have been heated discussions and some sharp accusations. Shelly called to arrange for Christmas activities and we came down to the three days including Christmas Eve. Emily had to work on her mandatory Science Fair project, due just after mid-term exams this week. Then I asked if Shelly would be home, knowing she had taken a new job. In fact, she would not be home most of that time. Without her there the children are supervised by Phyllis, sixteen year old Hamilton and Shelly’s tenant, who I do not know. I could not accept that, and took harsh words. Then I thought of James and asked if he could invite himself for the three days. He did.
Early Saturday morning before Christmas Laura, Emily and I went to the west side of Cleveland, collected James and his load of presents and headed east across two counties to the eastern end of Lake County. I have not been along the Lake Erie shore in twenty five years or more; it was a pleasure to listen to James point out all the sky line buildings in Cleveland. We had a guided tour the whole way, and I dropped the lot of them in Shelly’s front yard before noon.
No more secrets: James called me Saturday night and dropped bomb shells. The good news: Shelly blew through on her way to Dave’s on Saturday, had several fights with Emily in which she learned Emily did not consider grandma the source of all trouble and, together with Laura, would not come back to live with Shelly. I count that encounter as the source of my email from Shelly saying she was relinquishing the custody battle.
Nothing else James had to say was good. He did marshall his story well, saying at the end of each episode, “But that’s not all.” First, when the three of them went in on Saturday they found Hamilton, Phyllis, the tenant, and no food in Shelly’s house. He commandeered Phyllis’ car and went on a grocery expedition with the children. When they were fed, he asked questions. First, Bekka had shouldered most of the household bills the month her mother was unemployed, on her fast food wages. Her joint checking account with her mother was over drafted $250.00. James would take care of that, and set up a new account for Bekka and himself.
But that’s not all. He found a checking account between Hamilton and his mother. It had $1.98 left of a $5,000.00 deposit. I knew at once, one of Hamilton’s college bonds, his inheritance from his great grandfather Noragon. Shelly told Hamilton she needed it for the house. But, wait. In court Shelly told the magistrate she has not made a house payment since October, 2011.
Where did it go? According to her tenant, to the casino. Shelly has addicted herself to gambling. The tenant is a friend from nursing school who is very concerned about Shelly’s gambling. James would change Hamilton’s account to joint with himself, also, and took the balance of the bonds from Hamilton for safekeeping.
What casino? I was reeling. Tom Swift went on to explain that the oath of secrecy had been broken, and Bekka and Hammy spilled the beans. Shelly has been gambling uncontrollably since being introduced to casinos by Dave. I certainly do not fault the man; but I wonder what he thinks of his girlfriend. Shelly, according to the kids, even gambled away her first paycheck from her new job at the casino in Erie. Or Cleveland. Or West Virginia.
James and I went over what he intended to do to safeguard the children’s assets, and I hung up and reported to Jan. I did not know what to do next, past getting the girls back. James told me he would monitor Hamilton closely, as Ham still had no intention of leaving “home.” Because Shelly got wind of the “tattle tales” at her house she avoided a confrontation with James until the trip to bring the girls back here. So, all the dirty laundry was aired in front of two children.
But wait. There’s more. The next day my daughter Beth called to wish me Christmas greetings. I have heard little from her since a brief November visit. In her defense, since mid November she and her husband have been dealing with the decline and imminent passing of her father-in-law. That occurred a week ago Sunday, January 6th. But, back to Christmas. I told Beth what I had learned about Shelly’s gambling and the loss of Hamilton’s college money, probably Bekka’s money, the paycheck. “Oh,” said Beth. “I gave her $2,500.00 at Labor Day and made her promise to get help. She had been up three straight days gambling, lost it all, went to work, fell asleep and was fired.”
I was dumbstruck. Pole axed. Tsunami-ed. The daughter who would stand shoulder to shoulder with me, covering for her sister. A few brief remarks more about my awesome gifts to my grandchildren and the conversation ended. Now I was sick. I believe that’s when I stopped talking to people.
But wait. There’s more. James called me the afternoon of January 6th. Shelly had lost another $3,000.00 gambling. She approached first his father, then him to cover the debt to the casino. James sent her to the pastor of the church she abandoned Hamilton to. They have enrolled her in the same anti-addiction program they used for James twenty years ago. I asked her to please seek professional help. She has no insurance yet; her job is part time. She is going to AA.
I told James I can no longer honor the agreement to leave Hamilton there, and he agrees. But getting Shelly’s consent to guardianship was another heart ripping episode. She is a quivering mass of sorrow and promises; I cannot help her. Worse, worse, worst of all, Hamilton is not coming willingly. He is leaving twenty bloody gouges in every object I am dragging him across.
Back at Labor Day I had a plan B. If necessary I would involve Children’s Services to get custody of the children, get Phyllis out of the house and into proper care. I had all the names and phone numbers, had enlisted the help of the new school, was ready to pull the trigger. But Hamilton so adamantly wanted to stay in his school and his church, Shelly was behaving foolishly, but not dangerously, and I acquiesced. I had only suspicion, but no evidence. It would have been a tough go. Beth’s secret would have given me grounds, started Hamilton at the beginning of a school year, and biggest of all, kept the church from a six month campaign to totally brainwash my grandson.
The line in a Grimm’s fairy tale runs over and over in my head; “The mill can never grind with the water that is past.” I know that. But I am brought to my knees knowing my daughter covered for her sister instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with her mother to help the children.
The present: The final hearing, baring a trial, is in two weeks. The girls get their in camera. Shelly does not want to attend, but she must, or it will go over to trial. I had hoped to spare the girls appearing by knowing Shelly will turn over custody. The attorney says based on her previous behavior we must go through the entire process.
I have not mentioned the church. James talked to the minister about taking Shelly back and told him Hamilton is coming to live with the grandmother. He gave the minister my number to discuss the transition between congregations, and the minister called me. He outlined the help Shelly would receive in the counseling sessions and said while they would not pay her gambling debt they would help her with expenses so she can pay the debt.
Then he commenced to bargain with me to keep Hamilton. He said he is the closest thing to a father in Hamilton’s life; Hamilton is his best friend; he would personally guarantee Hamilton’s safety, or take him into his own home, or have another congregation member take him if he thought Hamilton could not stay with Shelly.
I was nearly speechless. I heard him out, and told him No. I do not know him. I do not know his church. I am the guardian. It is my decision, with his father’s concordance. I hung up. Ten minutes later Hamilton called me, bawling. This minister had called Hamilton and told him he was being taken away by his grandmother. “He’s my best friend!,” Hamilton wailed. Did I mention early on this church has no use for women, except as baby makers. This man has balls of a brass monkey to end run me and tell my grandson my news.
I almost took Hammy last weekend, but his and Emily’s mid terms coincide this week and the new term begins the week after. I relented and left him at the old school for exams this week. I drove to the old school today to get his grades released to the new school. I had to be buzzed in, but they did not even ask me for identification. Sort of the cherry on the sundae of stupidity.
We have given up another room to make a bedroom for Hamilton; we are getting him after school on Friday. We are prepared to deal with his passive aggressive, unhappy, surly sixteen year old self. I am putting all three of them in therapy to understand if I need to deal with all the red flags that minister waved in my face.
Thank you to everyone who wrote privately to find me and the lost blog. It was a symbol of my illusions. It was choking me. I deleted it. I’ll ask my sister to vet this. If it is publishable I will google and learn how to retrieve my deleted blog, and give you an afternoon’s read.
Oh, what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive.
Christmas 2002, when Emily last lived here