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Returning Grandpa’s Love

A family economy that doesn’t outsource care—at either end of life.

Kristy Leissle family photo

Walkin’ and chalkin’, that was what we did. Roaming the streets of Brooklyn, a couple of chalk sticks in my hand, I made primitive sketches on sidewalks, fire hydrants, and the occasional garage door, while Grandpa ambled nearby. Aloft on his shoulders, I felt as tall as the telephone poles we passed on our way home, where we played grocery store and toll bridge and ate chocolate. Grandpa was my baby­sitter, and he was my first friend.

Grandpa watched me because he was retired from his job as maintenance worker at Betsy Head Pool. My mom was a secretary for a small importing company, my dad a helicopter mechanic. That we were poor was simply accepted as fact. No one dreamed of paying for childcare: The cash economy was a parallel but distant realm we seldom visited. We had no money—but we did have relatives.

In my family, the decision to leave home is seldom permanent. We can, and do, come back any time we need to. When I was six, my parents divorced. Mom got custody of my brother and me, and we all moved in with her parents. Her two sisters were already there; one had left briefly to live in Florida, the other not at all. My grandparents had moved to the suburbs by then, and my brother and I grew up in their small house, surrounded by elders and aunts.

Mom continued to work as a secretary, so Grandma and Grandpa watched us after school. Grandpa was a natural teacher, and we sat together at the dining room table learning mathematics, geography, and history. I remember being astonished, then pitying, to discover that my classmates in the fourth grade could not measure the radius of a circle; Grandpa had taught me that years ago.

Later, when Grandpa began to suffer from poor circulation and Grandma to exhibit signs of dementia, “nursing home” sounded to me like a dirty word. To consign Grandma or Grandpa—warm, living family—to a cold institution simply wasn’t an option.

So the care of Grandpa’s ailing body and Grandma’s deteriorating mind fell largely to their daughters—my mother and her sisters—and to a lesser extent my brother and me. Grandma quickly descended into an impenetrable fog, reliving her past through mumbled arguments with ghosts and hearty laughter with unseen friends. She could communicate nothing concrete. Grandpa could, but was often too embarrassed by his frailty to ask for help.

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Though the care of elder bodies brings with it moments of macabre levity, the truth is that life at home became a sodden, endless routine of helping with bathroom trips, cleaning bedsores, and emptying chamber pots. We lived, as ever, in the “love economy”—doing all those unpleasant tasks that involve blood, pus, urine, feces, and knowing the profound sadness of watching the bodies of loved ones decay.

My brother speaks of it in the language of today’s fractured corporate world: “I could never imagine outsourcing that tough work,” he said to me at breakfast. “I mean, it’s family. It’s not like they outsourced your upbringing.” Indeed. My family has often felt to me like a closed circuit of care, an island economy unto itself. As in the larger one, our economy involves costs, risks, successes. But there are no profits, no gains to be distributed. Our returns are integrity, compassion, laughter, suffering, and, above all, the knowledge that we have lived fully—beginning to end—with those who have always loved us.


Kristy Leissle wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Kristy is a writer and professor of Global Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell, where she researches the cocoa-chocolate trade.

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