The Man Who Raised Me

He could have left me, but he decided to be a father and a grandfather

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I was raised by my grandmother. And any little thing could trigger her. One time I got mad and told her: ‘You’re not my mom.’ I was only six years old. But she put me on an airplane to go live with my mother for a month, who I didn’t even know. My grandfather James had to drop me off at the airport-- and both of us were sobbing. But he didn’t have any say in the matter because he wasn’t my biological grandfather. Mika was my grandmother’s second husband, and she abused him as much as me. He had been given two medals during World War II, which he kept in his dresser-- but he wasn’t the ‘alpha male type.’ My grandmother walked all over him. But Mika was the only source of kindness that I ever had. When my grandparents got divorced, we moved into a small apartment together. He became more of a roommate than a father. During the week he’d go to work. And I’d go to school. Then on Saturday nights we’d get dinner together. There wasn’t much guidance. We didn’t have critical conversations.

He was just a nice guy— that was it. Mika always seemed a bit two-dimensional to me. But right before I graduated high school he was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. And I was fishing around in his wallet for an insurance card, when an old black-and-white photo fell out. It was a picture of a young man in uniform. I asked Mika if it was him, and he said: ‘No, that’s Leatherwood.’ He then told me a story about how he’d fallen sick during the war, and a young man named Hilliard Leatherwood had taken his place. Soon afterward Leatherwood was captured by the Germans and executed. My grandfather always felt like it should have been him instead. He felt like he owed Leatherwood a debt, and he’d been carrying that photo for 50 years. For a brief moment I was given a window into a whole different man. One that had lived an entire life before I was born. My grandfather passed away on Thanksgiving Day 2002. He’d been the only adult member of my family that hadn’t rejected me. And without him I don’t know where I’d be today. I keep that picture of Leatherwood with me, to remember the man who saved my grandfather. And to honor how my grandfather saved me.

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