You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore
When the m-m-m-moon shines,
Over the cow shed,
I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.”
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my great-grandmother, my guardian angel, my first fan of any dream I was ever capable of. Although, now I am a successful woman living in Manhattan, it might lead you to believe that life was smoothly paved, a cake walk. But the truth is that I experienced many unpleasant growing pains and hardships. At age 63, Granny, Elizabeth Chronister, rescued my middle sister and me from an adoption home after our drug-addicted parents lost hope. Granny believed we deserved a far better chance at life than where we were headed. Life as a grandma’s girl was full of dysfunctions, disappointments, and hard lessons. Yet, through it all, Granny’s strong protective intentions paired with her love for us surpassed any statistical ending to my story. The hardships I have overcome have made me who I am today and for that I am forever grateful.
My middle sister and I went to live with Granny just after our July birthdays; I had just turned 2, and Julie had just turned 3. We were both born with the horoscope sign of cancer, and emotion runs strong in this sign where family and home are the utmost important to any “crab.” Although, at the time, Granny never thought she would be our legal guardian for the next sixteen years, but her husband, my “Poppa,” had always stayed concerned for my mother and our whereabouts. When news from the Northeast trickled down South that my father had been taken to prison for drug trafficking and Mom was addicted to heroin, my great-grandparents quickly made arrangements to expand their Southern home. This was Julie’s and my first lesson that family and the people you care about come first, no matter what.
Granny was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, home of her favorite president Bill Clinton, and Poppa was born in Philadelphia, and graduated from the same high school graced by Gloria Swanson. The Chronisters were mostly Pennsylvania Dutch from the time they emigrated from Germany around 1832, but the Chronister name my grandfather inherited was not by blood. My Poppa had a history of opening his home to children and had adopted my grandfather Tom Chronister. Although both men are now deceased, together they have created a strong Chronister foundation and a closely knit group who stick together. Since the first day I met Poppa, he was in a wheelchair; he’d had both legs amputated above the knee (at different times) because of poor circulation caused by hardening of the arteries, “arteriosclerosis.” He was in upper management at North American Rockwell when he retired to South Florida. The company, now known as Rockwell International, built the Apollo moon capsule, among other major products. This story was my favorite, and I use to carry around one of Poppa’s old business cards in my coin purse for easy access when bragging to my friends. “Because of my Poppa, people were able to get onto the moon!” He’d had a number of surgeries, almost all related to the same problem – arteriosclerosis – and was in and out of the hospital for reasons a child could not understand.
I always understood Poppa’s handicap made him different from other grandpas, but it never made me love him less. He was actively engaged in our lives as children and he was a superhero in how he learned to maneuver that wheelchair. I remember sitting on his lap and screeching in excitement as we played “wheelchair Olympics” on the front sidewalk. Days with Poppa consisted of always having a morning spectator for all hoola hoop and hopscotch competitions, afternoon naps to “Matlock,” and nightly adventures in the kitchen to find hidden sweets. Poppa had a broomstick with a retractable claw, not sure what you could call it, that served as the perfect invention for any person in a wheelchair who needed a longer reach. Sometimes, the extra reach wasn’t quite enough when in the kitchen looking for the “good stuff” because Granny was on to him and would hide the goodies out of the claw’s reach. These were clearly the times where he needed his assistant, and he would prop me right on top of the kitchen counter and I would (just like Matlock) search for any evidence of the missing treats. There were some close calls when the noise almost got us caught, and we would rush down to put on a different kitchen act. We quickly cleaned up before Granny made it to the kitchen from her bedroom, singing the song I had always thought she made up herself: “K-K-K-Kadie, beautiful Kadie, You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore. When the m-m-m-moon shines, over the cow shed, I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.”
In that summer of new beginnings: Tom Chronister’s unfortunate early widow flew Julie and me to our new, sunny neighborhood in Fort Myers, Florida. Nanny, my grandmother, also is named Elizabeth Chronister but nicknamed “Liz.” Perhaps because of an over-protective mother-in-law’s feelings, she was one of Granny’s least-favorite people, but she also had chosen to take responsibility in this child-saving story. She took guardianship of our oldest sister, Sarah, who was 6 at the time. (This breakup of siblings will forever be something the three of us make up for in our current relationships.) Childhood years with Granny and Poppa were definitely the good times, and Julie and I spent time with many different family members who wanted to come visit Granny, Poppa, and the girls. Granny and Poppa had three children beside my grandfather, Tom: Aunt Karen, Uncle Bill, and Uncle Chuck, and all three of them also played a huge part of our young development. Although our mom had been trying to reach us, Granny knew it wasn’t time and so never went there for at least a couple more years. As I know it was the best decision and for the best, it was still hard for children to understand where our parents were. So family always continued to surround us in their void. To our advantage, my mother’s little sister, Andi, and her big brother, Tom Jr., were welcomed by Granny into our lives and were also constant visitors to our home on Bradford Road. All aunts and uncles gave us the gift of cousin relationships and gifts of love and support to what Granny was doing for us.
Soon, the state awarded Elizabeth Chronister – Granny – full custody of Julie and me, and we had become “wards of the state.” In law, a ward is someone who is under the protection of a legal guardian, and a court may take responsibility for the legal protection of them. When I grew to understand this more, and adolescence drove Granny to frustrations, I often feared being taken away. I have never spoken about that fear to Julie before now (she edits my writings), but I know it was a monster in her closet as well. After guardianship had been granted, I have reason to believe that Granny still had no idea that this was only the start of her second journey through motherhood. Poppa passed away while I was in the 1st grade, dying of a series of strokes, a common outcome of arteriosclerosis. Like many families whose lives alter after a death, we had to start a new chapter in ours. Granny could not do this alone and invited her daughter, our great Aunt Karen, to move into the home with her two sons to help her pick up the pieces after the loss of her husband. Julie and I were now part of a bigger family but yet were tied closer to each other than ever before, and as the baby sister to Julie, this made me very dependent on her.