Sophie’s Kids

Sophie’s Kids

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

Sophie’s Kids

Live so that your children and grandchildren model your understanding of joy, laughter and love as the elixirs of life.

Laura Spiess

On a warm summer day in late August, I stood with a group of mourners in a small cemetery in the central valley of California. I could hear the pulsing beat of sprinklers in the background overshadowed by the minister’s words of condolence to those gathered. Most of us present were Sophie’s kids. Although not biologically her children, nonetheless we were loved and cared for by her.

In my case, my brother suffered from a rare bone disease that forced him to be a regular resident of Shriners Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. Although the doctors, nurses and other staff gave him wonderful treatment, it was not the same as healing in the comfort and love of your own family. My mother, having recently been diagnosed with M.S., was in another hospital across town ever since delivering me. The pregnancy, once thought to help an M.S. patient, sadly had the reverse effect, depleting her of what little stamina she possessed. My father was working three jobs to pay for the necessary hospital bills and numerous expenses encumbering our family.

Sophie and her husband Emil were friends of our family and lived across the street from us. Sophie loved children. Her children were grown and had children of their own whom she volunteered to care for while their parents worked. I think it was her childlike view of the world that drew her to the care of children. She always thought the world was out to do her good. She was quick to laugh and made time to play every day.

It was about this same time that Sophie began to take in foster children. She simply enjoyed the company of children, and her tender heart went out to the kids who needed a safe nurturing haven. It was her way of making a positive imprint on the world. Sophie was the mama and grandma that every child dreams of having.

My father was really struggling. He would begin his day at six in the morning by feeding one hundred and twenty head of cattle. From nine to five, he sold real estate and insurance and then went directly back out to the farm to feed the animals for the evening. Two or three times a week, he kept the books for several businesses in town in order to earn much-needed cash. I was only eight months old when the majority of care fell on his shoulders. As my mother’s health deteriorated to the point of critical care, he felt his whole world was crashing in on him. My father’s sister took care of me when she could, as well as a revolving door of baby-sitters trying to pick up the slack. One day his prayers were answered by the advent of Sophie.

He drove his pickup truck into our driveway late one evening only to be greeted by Sophie waving him down with her familiar apron. “Eric, I’ve got dinner cooking on the stove, and it will be ready for you and the baby as soon as you wash up.” An immediate lump formed in the back of his throat as he thanked her for her unsolicited kindness and tried hard not to reveal his emotional state. As Sophie hurried back across the street to tend to dinner, he paid the baby-sitter, then showered and tried to spend a little precious time with me. As much as he wanted to be a good daddy and put up a good front, he was overcome with emotion and shuddered with tears.

He later told me that it was as if his grief and burden were so great that it passed somehow from his heart to mine. Although I didn’t understand why he was so sad, I nonetheless began to cry also. He desperately tried to compose himself and me as Sophie knocked on the door and then let herself in with our dinner. Sophie allowed him his dignity by not mentioning the obvious, but instead casually began setting the table while filling him in on the day’s wild and hilarious adventures of her brood of kids across the street. He caught himself laughing out loud in spite of the mood he was in and then thought momentarily, When was the last time I had a good belly laugh? Sophie, sensing the burden clouding his face again, interrupted his thoughts with an amazing offer. “Eric, why don’t you bring little Meladee over to my house in the morning on your way out to the ranch and pick her up again at the end of your day? I start the coffee at five-thirty right on the button, and I’ve got so many kids playing around my house, one more won’t make a bit of difference,” she said.

And so I became one of Sophie’s kids, a draftee. She fed us breakfast and dinner for almost five years, on and off, and because my father was an accountant, the only form of repayment she would allow was for him to do her yearly taxes.

Sophie loved to sing to Patsy Cline on the radio as she cooked for us in her small, clean kitchen. I felt cherished by her because she called me her “little dolly.” I looked forward to her daily dose of laughter, which was her way of coping and poking fun at the mistakes humans make without taking them to heart.

Knowing my mother would be terribly sad being all alone in a hospital away from her family, Sophie started taking pictures of me and would put little footnotes at the bottom of each picture: “This is Meladee taking her first step.” “This is Meladee all dressed up to go to church on Easter Sunday.” “This is Meladee blowing you a kiss and telling you to get better because she misses you.”

As my mother and brother recovered enough to return home and our lives took on at least some sense of normalcy, I took my daily trip across the street to play among that elite tribe of Sophie’s—because I belonged. She bought a doll in honor of each child who stayed with her. The collection grew so large that her husband Emil eventually built her a big dollhouse in their backyard to house them all.

As I connect with all the many children turned adults who have come this day to pay their respects and tributes to Sophie, I’m overwhelmed with emotion like my father so many years ago, not because at age eighty-seven she passed on, but because here was a woman of great love, a lifeguard without a pool, who threw us a lifeline of unconditional kindness and hope. Sophie made the world a better place—one kid at a time. Sophie, my foster grandma.

Meladee McCarty

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