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Parenting: The Sequel

These grandparents bring savvy and compassion to the task of raising another generation

Growing older doesn't mean slowing down when there are grandchildren to raise. In the United States alone, 4.5 million children live in households headed by grandparents, and the trend is on the increase, with 1.2 million more elders raising grandkids than there were a decade ago.

 

A demanding task at any age, parenting presents particular challenges to older people, but the intergenerational relationship can also be uniquely rewarding. For Native American elders Rita and Steve Old Coyote (Filipino-Stalö and Cree, respectively), raising grandchildren with extended family in Suquamish, Washington, means a chance to pass along traditions—and to play.

 

Old Coyote family
Old Coyote family            photo by Linda Wolf
RITA

: Steven and I, when we got together, we were always on the road traveling. But I told Steve, I want our kids to know their grandfather, I want them to know my dad, Ramon Cari. He's one of the Filipino pioneers. He came to the United States in 1930.

 

We moved to Suquamish in 1981. This house was in the paper for rent. As soon as I touched the gate, I knew it was our place, that my kids would be raised here.

 

I have a son, James—he'll be 32 next month. Jessi just turned 28. Janaka is 23, and Alyssum is 21. We have seven grandchildren now. James has a boy who's 12, Bearon. Jessi has Johnathan and Jenavieve, and Janaka has Christopher, who was just born on the 19th of June, and Noelani, who's two. Alyssum has Koh-Kai, who's almost three. And Awasis, who is one. Alyssum's pregnant and she's due in August. So that will make eight.

 

DEE:

Are all the kids living here except for Bearon?

 

RITA:

People talk about how kids should grow up and move away. But I never thought that. You know, it gets a little hard sometimes, but I love this.

 

DEE:

I was thinking of the connections from generation to generation. I know that you, Steve, had a grandmother who was important to you.

 

STEVE:

My folks, I didn't hardly even know them. They were always messed up. I lived with my grandma most of the time. When you're little you need something to hang on to. You need a stable person. And she was it. She was the one that gave me the only stability I had in those days.

Everybody was really poor. We had to hunt, we had to raise and pick whatever else we could to fill in the gaps. She had one dress on, one in the closet, but she always was generous. She used to make medicine and give it to sick people. She always fed the bums that came by, set them on the porch with a bowl and a cup of water, and made them feel it was OK to be there.

I'd go fishing with her. She'd watch us play hockey. She was always there.

 

DEE:

You've seen the birth of almost every grandchild. What's that like?

 

RITA:

When Bearon was born and his mother, Skylene George, had him in the hospital, I was there, and it was the first time I ever witnessed it. It was so incredible.

 

STEVE:

Johnathan took forever.

 

RITA:

Well, Jessi had a hard time with both of her babies. With Jenavieve, Jessi's blood pressure shot up and so they took her a month early. Jessi was in the hospital for a couple weeks, and Jenavieve wasn't really healthy, either. I'd get up in the middle of the night and go to the nursery and just sit there with her. And everything was all quiet and dark, and she would be there, just laboring to breathe. And I would talk to her and pray, really pray.

 

STEVE:

None of us were sure that she was going to be alive day-to-day. And Jessi, she sat with that girl day after night. She would comfort her and coax her and love her and rock her. Jessi never quit, she never gave up. She willed that baby to life.

 

RITA:

At one point I didn't think Jenavieve's little spirit was with her. And I told Steve, you know, it just seems like her little spirit didn't come with her, it's stayed somewhere. So we did a ceremony and called her spirit to her. And then, all of a sudden, she was there. There was light in her eyes.

 

DEE:

Does being there for their births make a strong bond?

 

RITA:

Right from the get. Janaka did Caesarean, too. The second one, I was with her, and what an incredible experience that was. It was something entirely different. It took a while, it took longer than I thought it would. Then they held him up, and Dr. Macintyre, she goes, Happy birthday, little boy! With Alyssum, when Koh-Kai was born it was a long labor.

Her doctor, Dr. Zapata, was just yelling at her, “Push, push, push,” and we're all screaming at her, “Push push, push,” and finally she…

 

STEVE:

She raised way up, and she yelled, “Get outa there!”

 

RITA:

With Awasis, they induced her, and she was really suffering. It turned out the baby was sideways. So that was a quick C-section, they wheeled her in right away. But we were there.

 

DEE:

You were involved when the babies came home. Sometimes you'd stay up all night.

 

RITA:

You just do what you've got to do. I love cuddling them, they go to sleep in my arms. And there's nothing like it in the world. You know, it's so amazing thinking, as I hold these little ones, these grandchildren that are the children of my children, the great grandchildren of my dad and of Steve's parents, I just see the continuation of life. In my veins flows my dad's blood, and in my children's veins flows my dad's blood. And now here are these grandchildren and in their veins flows my dad's blood. To me, that's honorable, to carry on my dad, his memory and his legacy.

 

DEE:

Steve, you've spoken about wanting to teach your carving to the next generation.

 

RITA:

Bearon came to him a month ago and said, “Grandpa, can you help me carve this?” and he took out a picture of these carvings that are on Easter Island. So, Grandpa said, “Sure, let's do it.” He showed him the wood grains and how to hold the knife. Everything, you know.

And there were things Bearon told Steve. Bearon said, “You can hear the wood. You can feel how the knife goes through the wood.” And Steve said, “It's in his blood.”

 

STEVE:

It's like, what you want out of it is already there, it's been in that tree for hundreds of years. All you do is take away what's not already part of it. Bearon's got that concept.

 

DEE

: You always have so much fun with them. I walk in the gate and there's always a bunch of little kids clustered around.

 

RITA:

They're all over having a good time, and I think, that's what we do. We love them and we play with them. It's so cool being old and being able to be a little kid.

 

STEVE:

Koh-kai, Noelani, and Jenavieve were on the trampoline jumping around and they holler, “Grampa, come and jump.” And I'll go jump with them. Hell, yeah, play in the mud with them.

 

RITA:

I love it when I go in the house in the morning and they come running and they fight over my lap.

 

DEE:

But it's not just passing on traditions and it's not just playing. The fathers have not been as much involved. You've done a fair amount of hard-core work.

 

STEVE:

Just what's got to be done for the kids. That's all that matters.We rush them to the hospital. We've hauled them to the doctor when they're throwing up in the middle of the night. And all that stuff that goes with it, that's just part of it. Sometimes you think about it, because we get pretty well drained financially. It doesn't have a thing to do with how we are with the grandkids, though. Not a thing.

 

RITA:

They're gifts from God, and it's up to us to love them and nurture them and teach them compassion because they learn all the time from what's around them.

And so I can't even begin to describe the love that I have for them. There's no words.

 

STEVE:

I think for me, the very core of it, the very vortex of our relationship with each one of those kids, is that they're not afraid of us. We never hurt them, we never hit them or throw them around or spank them, so it's good like that, with them.

 

RITA: For me, I sit and I hold my grandchildren and I look into their eyes and I wonder what their lives are going to be. I pray for that light of protection to be around them, because God chose them to be here. And I want them to fulfill their destinies on this earth. Email Signup
Respecting Elders, Becoming Elders
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