Brenda Della Casa is a columnist and author who specializes in writing about interpersonal relationships. She is also something of a rarity: a female raised by a grandfather. In this interview, conducted via email, Della Casa describes her experience.
What were the circumstances which led to your being raised by your grandfather?
Grandparents often step in and take over after it has been established that parents are unwilling or cannot, for whatever reason, appropriately care for their children. My grandfather not only stepped in, he did so with 100% commitment, and, had he not, things would have been dire.
He was my mother, father, sibling and best friend from day one. There are photos of me at three months old in the crib in my grandfather’s room! Here was a 65-year-old man who was watching his wife deteriorate from cancer, and he was not only caring for her but also for an infant entirely on his own. People from the church we attended have told me that they were amazed at the care he gave me as a child. They saw him as a fishing and hunting “man’s man,” yet he was not only able to nurture and care for an infant but adored doing it. One lady told me it changed her whole perception of men.
My first memories are of my grandfather playing with me, disciplining me and caring for me. He was my grandfather only by a technicality, and yet my father retained custody of me because the courts worried an older man could not properly care for a young girl, something that I still don’t understand. My grandfather was the best, most loving parent I have ever seen, and I think it is extremely important to put it out there. Age and gender have nothing to do with a person’s ability to be a loving and attentive parent. I was the love of his entire life from the moment I was born, and he let me know it every day he was alive.
Did you have other close relatives? What about a female role model?
My grandfather and grandmother’s siblings were lightly involved in my life, but we were not geographically close to them. When I got older, I became closer to my great-aunt, but when I was a child, there were no females who were constants in my life. I started looking up to Marilyn Monroe and Madonna as mother figures when I was six years old, much to my grandfather’s chagrin! My grandpa worried about this and did speak a lot about my grandmother, using her actions as a way to teach me to be a young lady. It wasn’t until I was about 26 that those teachings really impacted me and I understood what he said when he told me, “There is a big difference between a woman and a lady.”
Was your grandfather still employed when he took over your care? Did providing for you cause him financial hardship?
Grandpa was retired when I was growing up, but he was a man who appreciated work and labor, so he was always doing something–fixing something, volunteering, hunting or fishing, and I was always there, right by his side.
My grandfather made great sacrifices in his life in order to be my only source of emotional, financial and physical support. While I didn’t feel it intensely as a child, I can see now that times were extremely tough for us, and I am sure he worried. We went fishing a lot and ate a lot of cheap frozen dinners, but I never went without. I may not have had the most dolls or the name brand cereal, but I wasn’t raised to appreciate those things as much as time spent together, good conversation and long walks, and we were rich that way.
What was your grandfather’s parenting philosophy and how did it affect you?
My grandpa was very well-mannered and valued emotional and intellectual intelligence. He wasn’t one to scream or yell, but I knew what the rules were and that they had consequences, believe me. A simple look would crush me! He was very respectful and dignified and treated me as a valuable human being. He was a loving, old-fashioned and very traditional man. My grandpa never missed a spelling bee or a student-parent night, and he adored having a little girl. He surprised me with dresses that I know put a dent in his budget. He talked to me about life lessons that I am sure now, he was concerned that I would not hear once he passed away. This was something that he brought up as I got older. It was the biggest heartache and shock of my life when that happened.
Did your grandfather’s age limit the things you could do together?
I think he felt it did, but I didn’t. There was never a time I wished my grandpa were like other parents in any way. I never felt limited in any way; in fact, I felt other children were missing out.
We did everything together: played checkers, did arithmetic, took walks and watched TV. Sundays we would go for lunch after church and it was such a special time. I loved just sitting there, talking and having a hamburger with my best friend.
What is the most important lesson you learned from your grandfather?
There are dozens of powerful lessons from him, gifts, really. I would have to say one of the most valuable was treating everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of how I might feel about their choices. My grandfather was also big on equality. I remember us not returning to a church because it was not diverse enough.
In what ways are you like your grandfather?
I think I become more like him as I get older. I definitely aspire to be loving, respectful and all of the things he was. It’s a goal of mine to be the kind of young lady he wanted me to be, but because he is such a hero in my mind, I always worry I fall short.
In what ways are you different?
The differences we have would be based on the times we live in. I definitely know he would not approve of my still liking Madonna but he’d be happy I am not emulating her anymore! I think I went through a growing up phase where I rebelled a little bit but not too intensely. I definitely am more conservative than I used to be, but not to the extent he was. I also am more outgoing and thrill-seeking than he was, but that’s OK. I think we taught one another a few things when we were together. He brought stability and I brought a little spark.
I think grandparents who raise their grandchildren are angels here on Earth, truly.
Brenda Della Casa’s latest book is Cinderella Was a Liar.
The original piece can be seen here.