The rule was that you call Grandma when you’re leaving wherever you’re playing. You tell her where you’re going to play next. When you get to where you’re going to play next, you call again to let her know you’re safe. Then, if you‘re ever not safe, if you disappear, Grandma will know where to start looking for you.
In a city where punks with their pants falling off hung out in parks handing out who knows what, where there was the occasional story on the news about another small boy vanishing, where Quinn himself saw someone waving a gun in the bleachers when we went to the skateboard park,…. well, you would think my grandson would have been happy to have someone know where to start looking.
My grandson came to stay with me in July about six weeks before he would enter 5th grade. The day after he arrived, we went over the rule. He nodded. We went over the reason for the rule. He nodded. He left to investigate the neighborhood. He didn’t call. I went looking. Two hours later, I found him with a group of kids seven or eight blocks from my apartment.
“Why didn’t you call to say where you are?” I asked.
“Grandma, you can go home,” was his reply.
“I’m doing just that,” I said, “and if you want to live someplace other than a street corner here in Long Beach and have some dinner in a few hours,” you’re going to come home with me. Now.”
He grabbed up his most prized possession, his skateboard, and came after me with a face as furious as I’ve ever seen. Then, he astonished me: As he passed a telephone pole he slammed the skateboard into it as hard as he could. It didn’t break, but it wasn’t for trying.
Later, in one of his rare explanatory modes, Quinn would say that when he got angry he wanted to destroy something. That was the only thing that would satisfy him: not pounding a punching bag, not taking a timeout, not having an ice cream. Destroying something, preferably valuable, best if valuable to someone else, was the only thing that would do.
Quinn was to be with me for the year. His father had called me in tears a month before. “I can’t do anything more to help him,” he’d said. “If I try to ground him for staying out half the night without calling home or for not helping his sisters with chores, as soon as I go to work the next day his mother lets him leave the house. If I try to talk to him about right and wrong, his mother makes sure he can see her laughing in my face. I’m so afraid for him. He’s so completely unprepared to have any kind of happy life.” So of course I said I’d be his mother for the year.
You would think the kid would be embarrassed in front of his new friends and would start using the cell phone I had bought for him, making a quick call when required: “Going to Kevin’s.” Then at Kevin’s: “Hi, Kevin’s got ‘Need for Speed.’ And just before dinner, “Leaving Kevin’s, home in a minute.”
Quinn didn’t even care if he had dinner. If we were going to get a burrito gigante up at the Mexican takeout, he would eat the entire thing in one sitting, something most adults couldn’t manage. At home, though, he would eat four bites and then declare he wasn’t hungry. He was hungry only for steak, he would say, or maybe for crab. When I would explain that steak and crab were too expensive, he would call me a whore, bash the table with his fork, and declare, “Then I’m not eating.”
The thought of Grandma, in her sixties, trying to make a living selling sex was amusing if you were looking hard for a laugh to lighten the load. Nonetheless, after seven weeks of this, I was feeling like crying most of the time and was about as exhausted as my son had seemed when he called me.
Then, school started. I thought that would be good since I would no longer have go hiking around the neighborhood every few days trying to find the kid.
We got off to a bad start with school, though. I picked Quinn up from the school grounds each day after work and asked him about his day, and in particular if he had any homework. At age 11, I remembered, one does have homework. He would look innocent and say, “They haven’t started giving anybody homework. They haven’t given us our homework journals yet.” (I had paid $6.00 for a journal). Or, “I did all my homework in school.”
Two weeks after school started, I requested interviews with his teachers and learned that Quinn had done no work at all in school and none of his homework. His grade was zero in every single class. Two of his teachers told me they’d never had a student before with a zero grade. “I think the lowest I’ve ever seen is 20,” said his math teacher, shaking his head.
The school rule was that homework turned in late without good reason would get a grade of 50 percent of what it would have been had it been turned in on time. Fifty percent being better than nothing, I gathered up all the assignments he had not done, and every night I sat with him doing that night’s homework plus one catch-up assignment.
Or to be more accurate, every night I sat with him while he broke pencils, tore up paper, snarled, threw his phone, and finally did 10 minutes worth of homework. Then, every morning when I took him to school, I went with him to each teacher’s room and saw to it that he turned in his homework.
That’s pretty much how it went for the whole year. If I got sick, no homework got done. If I didn’t go to the school each morning to turn in homework, homework that had been done the night before and put in his backpack didn’t get turned in. If I had to work on a Saturday, I would have no idea where he was or what he was doing since he knew I would not be able to check up on him that day.
I had started off that year thinking, “If I can get this kid to do something right, even if it isn’t his idea, then he can be proud of himself for doing the right thing. That’s how these things work. If I can just bring an experience to him that isn’t clanging angry, even if he only gets a glimpse of the sunshine from his dark existence, he might begin to understand how much he can do and how much he is loved.
I did have a few successes. He learned his multiplication tables, for example. This was a small but important task and one he had been avoiding for two whole years, mostly by not going to school at all. “I won’t” had over that period of time slid downhill into “I can’t.” Enough weeks during which that prized burrito gigante was available only if he could say his 4’s or his 7’s finally paid off, and he discovered “I can, if I want.”
And I was able to make learning history something he occasionally wanted to do. The two of us worked together every night to bring his history grade up to a C. I wonder if he now, in his twenties, remembers his favorite historical figure: Mansa Mūsā, who traveled to Cairo with a caravan of 60,000 men, including 12,000 slaves dressed in brocade and Persian silk, and with a baggage train of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold. Wow!
We had fun learning history. And Quinn was awarded a “Most Improved” certificate. He never cared much about it–didn’t even take it with him at the end of the year when he went back home. But I still have it.
We also went to the Getty Museum and saw some of the gold-embossed books the monks hand lettered in the 15th Century, which he had seen pictured in his history book. Quinn was impressed both by the “real gold on those books” and by the fact that making those books was a “lotta work, Grandma.” Then in the Renaissance galleries, we got close enough to a Rembrandt to make the guard nervous and examined the brush strokes. Painting was a lotta work, too. Quinn was impressed that most of the artists whose work was shown were men. He thought only women were interested in color—except as paint on cars—or design—except for wheel covers or grilles. In the middle of the day, we perched on one of the outdoor benches to rest and look at the brochure to see what we might see next. I said he should choose.
“Why?” he wanted to know.
“Well, I live in Southern California,” I said. “I can come here anytime. But you live two states away, in Port Townsend, WA. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for you.”
He was silent for several minutes, staring off into the Getty tiered garden. Then he turned to me and said, “Grandma, you mean you made this whole day just for me? Nobody’s ever made a whole day just for me.”
Nobody’s ever made a whole day just for me. It touched me. I couldn’t help thinking, though, of the whole lotta time just for Quinn that, as a child, he hadn’t noticed.
There were several days spent before school started driving from one school to the next, frantic, trying to find an opening for Quinn somewhere other than in my assigned district. Though I lived in a small pocket of safety, four blocks south of me was scary. And the middle school six blocks south of me had razor wire around it and the lowest rating of any middle school in the city. To this day, I thank goodness I found a safe school and talked the school secretary into registering Quinn.
On each weekday, there was the extra hour of driving to get Quinn to school before my commute to work and the extra hour to get him home after work.
There was the occasional hour or two after school spent chasing trains, so Quinn could relate to me some tidbit about this or that railroad car manufacturer, or hunting for auto wrecking yards, which were heaven for him.
There were many Saturdays spent at “etnies,” the largest free skate park in California, three hours travel time, three hours standing outside the fence in the blazing sun watching him drop into a huge cement bowl or scrape his skates along a simulated sidewalk railing. Quinn was an excellent skater for his age.
There were three whole months spent dealing with California state health insurance, finding a doctor who would take this insurance, taking him to doctors’ appointments and finally getting him surgery to remove his adenoids. After the surgery, for the first time in his life Quinn could sleep without gasping for air and could run around without having to carry tissues to stem the flow of blood from a likely nosebleed. Come to think of it, this has to count as my biggest success.
And finally, there were the days I spent working on my brightest idea: finding a custom car shop in the area that would reward Quinn for better grades by letting him participate in restoring a classic car. I met some nice car guys.
However, except for that C in history, which he was forced into, Quinn never did get the B and C grades the car guys agreed would get him into their chop shop. So, he never got to find out what it might be like to grow up and work at his dream job.
And he never did find out what home is supposed to be, either. He never experienced that relief upon opening the front door and stepping into the one place where you know you are safe, and loved, and can laugh. The one place where you can make mistakes, and learn, and grow up, and contribute and feel worthwhile. For Quinn, my home was just one more battleground. And although there were rare moments of relative peace, for the most part my grandson remained unreachable, intractable and hateful the entire year he was with me.
It took me a year to recover from the year I spent with Quinn. I had colds, flues and back aches. I couldn’t sleep, and then I couldn’t wake up. Despair came in and decided to set a spell. I felt that I had failed my grandson. If I had only…. If I could have…. You know how that goes.
Two years after his stay with me in Long Beach, CA, Quinn came back to stay with me in Gold Beach, OR. I had a second chance!
But the kid was even more difficult the second time around. Or rather the same, but older. This was the year I tried to bribe him: $400 for each A on a report card would net him $2,000 in his high-school freshman year and $16,000 upon graduation from high school if he got all A’s. He could use the money for the technical schooling he would need for any of those dream jobs with cars. And in case A’s were a little out of reach for a kid who had almost never attended school the previous year, I offered him $300 for each B and $200 for each C. I knew A’s were attainable, though, both because he was that bright and because I was willing to work with him to earn them.
At the end of that school year, however, Quinn had earned only $200 for one C. The rest of his grades were D’s and F’s. He hated me, Gold Beach, and the entire world and wanted only to go back home to his mother who, since his birth, had mostly ignored him, even to the extent of not feeding him sometimes and forcing him to beg dinners from better mothers.
My health was so precarious by that time that I had to let him go. Back to sure failure.
So Quinn went back to live with his mother in a house that had deteriorated to the extent of being beyond repair, with uncollected trash on the back porch collecting rats, dishes in the sink for weeks–all the detritus of severe neglect. He piles his belongings on the floor and does odd jobs for a few bucks.
Re-reading this, a year or so after writing it, I want to scream, “No, not Quinn. Not my beautiful beloved grandson.” But if I did scream, he wouldn’t hear me. My grandson is lost to me.
Will telling you about it help me feel any better?
* * *
A shorter version of this piece was published in Put it to Rest on October 20, 2021.