An Act of Love: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

A tree planted nearly 50 years ago grows and shades in the town park of tiny Ringsted, Iowa. It was placed there one Arbor Day by the late Stanley Jorgensen, who worked at the grain elevator, the tallest building in town. It was his tradition to plant and name trees after his children, and after three sons, the name of his first daughter came easily. She and her tree were named Joy.

Stanley favored firs, but this one was deciduous—perhaps maple—capable of withstanding forbidding winters before breathing in the glow of spring. It is the life Joy Jorgensen has lived.

She, too, is a survivor. Her youngest daughter, who as a child had a smile of golden light, became a drug addict. She entered treatment time and again, but her way was to flee, and recovery always was left behind. She now is in prison for identity theft.

For years, Jorgensen, administrative assistant for the assistant provost for Enrollment Management in Student Affairs and assistant to the Associate Provost for Academic Success and Engagement in Academic Affairs, received late-night calls, and she answered all of them, rescuing her daughter from abusive relationships and all that comes with methamphetamine.

“I have three daughters,” Jorgensen says. “The oldest is a social worker in Alabama. The middle daughter is a nurse at Albany General Hospital, and my youngest daughter is an addict.”

Seven years ago, Jorgensen made a decision no mother should have to make., but there had been too many broken promises and furtive footprints leading her daughter deeper into disarray.

“I finally said my attention has to go to her two daughters. There was nothing I could do for her. She has to make that change,” Jorgensen says. “I had to pretty much cut her off.”

She took temporary custody of the girls, Lillian, now 10 and Aubrey, 8, hoping her daughter would repair her life, but that day hasn’t come, and she and her husband are in the process of adoption.

It is not the life she envisioned. She mooned of travel and preparing for retirement. First on her list was Greece, and with great anticipation, she obtained a passport and was anxious to fill it with stamps from Australia, Scandinavia and whichever way the wind blew.

Then, in 2005, her course changed in good ways. She met a man—this time a good man—and six months later, she and John MacDougall III were married. It also was the year she received her degree.

When Jorgensen began working at OSU in 1993, she began taking classes during her lunch break. Twelve years later, she graduated Suma Cum Laude with a degree in American Studies and a minor in business.

A degree, a husband and a passport. Her new life seemed too good to be true.

And it was.

MacDougall, a mortgage broker, became disabled by a series of illnesses: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis. A year later, her granddaughters and the responsibility of raising them became theirs.

Her passport remains unused and will expire soon.

“But that’s OK,” she says, before pausing. “It is what it is.”

It is a fist to a mother’s heart to have to choose between her daughter and her grandchildren. When they ask about their mother and why they don’t live with her and why she is the way she is, Jorgensen explains: “So you can be here with us.”

joy jorgensenJorgensen and MacDougall are not alone. There are 37,536 Oregon children living in grandparent-headed households, according to a 2010 Department of Human Resources study. Nationwide, there are an estimated 6 million children living with grandparents or other relatives. That’s more than the populations of 32 states.

That she would rescue her grandchildren is not surprising. She has been a caretaker for much of her life. By the time she was 11, she did the cooking and cleaning. On Saturdays she did a week’s worth of laundry, arriving at the Laundromat early to have use of all the washers.

She married young, but the relationship withered when her husband retired from the military. Three times, he left her, but she always took him back. The marriage ended suddenly one night when she cooked dinner, sat and ate quietly, stood from the table, threw some clothes in a duffle bag and drove away. Her only regret is that she waited so long to leave.

“I was so needy,” she says. “I was afraid I couldn’t make it on my own, but I learned that I could and that I didn’t deserve to be abused.”

Faith, she says, has gotten her through the rough times. It’s something she learned from her father, a man with long arms who sat in church with three of his children on one side of him, four on the other. He could easily pinch any of them if they began to doze or misbehave.

Her parents divorced when she was 6 and it was her father who served as the center of her family. During World War II, he earned a Purple Heart after being wounded in battle and at one point spent 10 hours bobbing in the Pacific after his boat went down.

After his discharge, however, he went from being a wartime hero to a more fundamental form of heroism. He became a father. In all there were eight children, one of them born from his second marriage.

He loved flowers and distributed them to his church, the café and throughout town. He also loved birds and animals, so there was always a gang of critters at their house. Jorgensen remembers Polish chickens, pheasants and quails. At one point they had a mean-spirited monkey named Chiquita. A snapping turtle lived in a backyard bathtub. Then there were the dogs and cats and, for a while, a skunk.

Since there was no zoo in Ringsted, kindergarteners would visit their home.

He had a 1920 Studebaker buggy, and Jorgensen cringed when he made her ride in it during the Fourth of July parade. He once sent her daughters an accordion, even though none of them played or expressed interest in learning to play the instrument.

Jorgensen says her greatest accomplishment occurred in 2001, when her father waned in a nursing home and a brother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

“All eight of my father’s children had never been in the same place at the same time,” she says. I told everybody that if we going to do this we had to do it now.”

Four months after the reunion, her father died, and a month, later, her brother followed.

She continues to pray for her daughter, who is pregnant as she serves her prison term. She hopes the time will come when she can forgive, but she’s not there yet.

As far as her grandchildren, they are precious and bring great joy.

“They know they are loved and know that they’re safe, and they know they’re not being drug from one flop house to another.”

That she rescued them from what could have been trumps her retirement plans, but she is unwilling to place them aside. She will see that her granddaughters get the futures they deserve.

But she also will renew her passport.

Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki


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