Not Their Grand Plan

Not Their Grand Plan
Bellevue Leader (Aug. 27, 2003)
By Wendy Townley

First there’s David.

He’s tall for his age, with light brown hair and glasses he fingers without noticing. When you look at his grandpa you see the similarity between the two, both having the same pushed-up noses and round mouths.

Then there’s Timothy.

A year younger than his brother, Timothy’s hair is so blonde it’s nearly white. He speaks in phrases rushed together, the words tumbling out of his mouth at staccato speeds appropriate for a 7-year-old boy.

Look beyond the bedroom and toys they share, and you see the tragic turns their young lives have taken.

Timothy talks about his experience matter-of-factly and with little emotion, almost as if he’s discussing a classmate or friend, mixing fact with opinion.

“My dad’s dead,” Timothy says, his blue eyes staring straight ahead. “He served good hot dogs when we were in Alabama.”

“And he had cancer,” Timothy adds in the same breath. “That’s how he died.”

Although the boys may not identify it as such, they experienced another death nearly three years ago.

Death because their old lives ended.

But a new life has begun, thanks to a pair of grandparents whose last resort turned out to drastically change their lives.

* * *

Bob and Peg Rennert married young.

Bob was a year ahead of Peg at Papillion High School in the early 1970s, but they’d known each other before high school.

It was 1973. Bob was 17; Peg was 15. Teenagers in love, hoping to beat the odds.

But Bob and Peg didn’t. She got pregnant that year, with Robert, their first son.

They dropped out of school and got married. Bob joined the U.S. Coast Guard and moved his pregnant wife to New York City.

“We were married 10 days when he left for basic training,” Peg says, seated in the overstuffed recliner in their Bellevue home, using her foot to rock slightly.

Adds her husband: “That was a long time ago and far, far away.”

Two years later, their second child, a girl named Marie, was born.

During the next 21 years, the couple crisscrossed the country as the Coast Guard reassigned Bob to various cities, all the while raising their two children.

In 1994, Bob retired from the Coast Guard. The couple returned to Sarpy County that year, purchasing a modest home off Fort Crook Road near Nebraska Highway 370.

Their children moved out of the house. Bob and Peg were ready to begin another chapter in their lives together.

“We were enjoying our empty nest,” Peg says. “We just did what we wanted to. It was so nice. If we felt like going out and going shopping, we did. And if we wanted to buy something, we did.”

In 1993, Marie, then 18, married Berry Teader.

Marie met Berry, one year her senior, while living in Oregon.

Bob and Peg couldn’t contest the marriage too much, having wed much younger than their daughter so many years ago.

Their only concern was the length of Marie and Berry’s courtship; they’d known each other for just three weeks.

But their daughter was an adult. There wasn’t much they could do.

* * *

After about a year living in Bellevue, Marie and Berry moved to Huntsville, Ala., Berry’s hometown.

Marie gave birth to their two sons about a year apart – David and later, Timothy.

Berry grew ill months into the marriage and developed acute leukemia.

“He was in the very advanced stages when they determined what was wrong with him,” Peg says.

That was in 2000.

That also was when Marie and Berry’s marriage began to fall apart, causing them to separate.

That summer, Bob and Peg received a phone call from Huntsville authorities informing them Marie no longer had custody of the boys. A series of trips to Alabama, numerous court hearings and a depleted savings account resulted in Bob and Peg being granted temporary custody of their only two grandchildren.

Before Bob and Peg were granted permanent custody, however, Berry received temporary custody for a few months, as the court determined he was fit, at least for the time being, to raise his sons.

But Berry’s health continued to deteriorate. The leukemia proved to be too much. Berry died one day before David’s birthday: June 20, 2001.

Soon after Berry’s death, Marie and the boys moved to Bellevue – but with a twist: Bob and Peg were the legal custodians of David and Timothy.

Now in their mid-40s, the couple was starting over as the parents of two little boys.

“It’s like a soap opera,” Peg says, “but it’s real life.”

* * *

People always mistake Peg and Bob for the boys’ mom and dad.

Since taking in their grandsons more than two years ago, Bob and Peg have turned their lives upside down.

Peg quit her job to care for the boys during the summer months and after school, which means the family of four relies on the salary from Bob’s telecommunications job.

The Rennerts also receive $300 per month per child in the form of Social Security due to Berry’s death, but Peg says they’re still strapped financially.

“It has been a big addition of stress,” Peg says of raising the boys. “Our lives have changed drastically.”

Bob and Peg straddle the roles of parent and grandparent.

“We can’t be the traditional grandparents,” Peg says. “We can’t just spoil them and send them home like regular grandparents do.”

But, Bob adds, they can’t act as the boys’ parents, either.

“We’re not trying to take their parents’ place,” he says. “We’re just trying to see that they get a good upbringing and have what they need: somebody to love them and take care of them.”

The boys started school again last week – David in third grade and Timothy in second grade.

Despite the stable setting the boys now live in, they’re seeing a child psychologist to deal with the unexpected and tumultuous paths their young lives have taken.

Peg is in therapy, too. She struggles with raising her grandchildren right, and the feelings of guilt from her daughter’s situation.

“It’s hard not to have those feelings of guilt,” she says. “I must have failed my daughter.”

Bob and Peg aren’t living alone anymore, and they know that. Meals have to be planned. Vacations are sparse, due to a tighter budget. Home remodeling projects and big-ticket purchases have been put on hold indefinitely.

“It has changed everything,” Peg says. “You don’t just leave the bedroom door open and change your clothes, or go in the bathroom and not close the door. There are children in the house again. It affects everything.”

It has even changed what Peg drives.

Before the boys, Peg zipped around Sarpy County in a 1998 Monte Carlo Z34.

After the boys moved in, Peg traded in her Monte Carlo for a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix.

“With four doors,” she adds, reluctantly, “for the car seats.”

Marie, 28, lives in Bellevue and still is part of her sons’ lives. She visits David and Timothy at her parents’ home.

“The boys are always happy to see her,” Peg says, “but they miss her when she leaves. David is especially emotionally attached to his mom.”

As parents the second time around, Bob and Peg say they’re more aware of their surroundings and the dangers that lurk outside their door.

“When our kids were little, particularly when we lived in upper Michigan, we thought nothing of letting them go outside and play all day long,” Peg says. “Come home for lunch, come home for dinner and don’t worry about them unless they came home bleeding or screaming.

“But now, you can’t do that. You can’t let them out of your sight anymore. We find that we have to be so much more restrictive in that respect than we did with our own kids. It’s awful. It’s horrible. You can’t allow them any real freedom anymore.”

With a more structured lifestyle lacking spontaneity and bank accounts with smaller balances, Bob and Peg don’t sugarcoat their situation.

But they don’t see that they had any other choice.

“They’re flesh and blood. It’s just the way I was brought up,” Bob said.

For Peg, too, there was no decision to make in deciding to raise their grandsons as their own. “What else do you do?”

ENOA an ally for today’s grandparents

Christine Gillette was surprised at the numbers when the 2000 Census landed on her desk.

Her eyes glanced at the Grandparent Caregivers section.

In Nebraska, 17,401 grandparents were raising 8,454 grandchildren in their homes.

In the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Bellevue, 7,514 grandparents were raising 3,609 children in 2000.

“We had no idea of the numbers that the people were talking about,” said Gillette, with the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging in Omaha. “You talk to some of the grandparents in our program, and they are well aware of other grandparents who are (raising their grandchildren). But it’s not like it’s something that is well publicized.”

About three years ago, the ENOA developed the Grandparent Resource Center, a program that provides a variety of services for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

The ENOA offers monthly support meetings for grandparents, although it has temporarily suspended this part of the program as it searches for a new director.

Gillette said the meetings would begin again late next month.

The meetings, Gillette said, provide grandparents with guest speakers and allow them to network.

“That hour would give the grandparents time to visit with each other and console each other to get problems off their chests,” Gillette said. “The more of the grandparents we can get hooked up with each other to at least let them know they’re not in this alone, the better.”

The ENOA also houses a library filled with information for grandparents and the grandchildren they’re raising.

Interest in the Grandparent Resource Center has jumped in recent months, Gillette said.

The reason? Gillette pointed to teen pregnancy.

“Their children had these babies, but just weren’t responsible adults yet,” Gillette said. “They didn’t have their own life together, let alone be together enough to raise a child.”

Like Bob and Peg Rennert of Bellevue, many of these grandparents aren’t senior citizens nearing retirement.

“Many of our grandparents aren’t even 60 yet,” Gillette said. “They’re low 40s to mid 50s. You’ve got children having babies at 15 and 16, so consequently, you’ve got grandparents in their 40s.”

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