My grandparents were pioneers in the battle for visitation rights

To me, they were dependable, a security blanket I would never lose.

By Damien Cave

Published November 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Theirs was an early '70s marriage: founded on a Jamaican boardwalk, fueled by hippie idealism and snuffed out by drug-induced clashes. Dad was a surfer and film-school dropout from Long Island, N.Y. Mom was simply a seeker, a painter from Scarsdale, N.Y., who had long ago rejected that town's materialistic mantra.

In Jamaica, they fell in love, and in a generic church that satisfied Dad's Catholic and Mom's Jewish relatives, they married. At that point, they had known each other for less than a year. Neither had a college degree, job prospects or a clear idea of what they stood for, rather than against. I've always believed that their relationship was based on a shared lust for life's rushes -- everything from drugs, to the sunrise, to sex, to meeting new people. But whatever it was didn't last. I was born less than a year after their wedding, but the marriage dissolved before I turned three.

"My acid habit and your mom's drinking just didn't get along," Dad told me a few years ago. "I took you because I didn't think I was quite as messed up as she was."


Relative stupors aside, Dad drove me cross-country, kicking off several years of lying and a custody battle rife with claims of kidnapping and abandonment. I don't remember much of this, and have never given it too much thought. Early on I stopped asking questions because the responses always contradicted each other and seemed sensationalized, backfires from a family spin machine that over-compensated for the anger that everyone but me seemed to feel.

Plus, the custody mayhem appeared irrelevant. After the divorce, which finished in 1983, five years after it started, my mother floated out of the picture. My most important relationships -- those with my stepmother and my maternal grandparents -- blossomed outside the court's view.

Or so I thought until a few months ago. That's when my grandmother mentioned over dinner that she and my grandfather were among the first couples to gain grandparents' visitation rights. I initially figured she didn't know what she was talking about. She and my grandfather have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My Christmas and summer visits weren't mandated, I thought. They were simply the desired routine.

Then, upon hearing that the Supreme Court would soon hear a case similar to my own -- one that might lead to the end of the rights that I instinctually favored -- I asked my father to send me a copy of the divorce papers. I'd never looked at them before, but in their yellowed pages I discovered that my grandmother was right. They received a few weeks per year with me, thus joining thousands of other grandparents who also won such rights during the '70s and '80s.

For my grandmother, legalized visits were a victory. When she spoke of them, pride enveloped her words. I tended to see their efforts as a positive as well, but then I began to wonder if it wasn't that simple.

Apparently several judges have done the same. All 50 states still have laws permitting grandparents to seek visitation rights, but lower courts in Washington (where the Supreme Court's case comes from) and other states have struck them down. Judges have argued that the laws interfere with parents' fundamental right to raise children of their own. Other critics, such as Joan Bohl, a family-law expert in Los Angeles, say the laws bog down the judicial process and embitter parties that already are at odds.

About half the country appears to have taken these arguments seriously, according to my own survey of major newspapers, editorials and letters to the editor. A poll by the Orlando Sentinel found 80 percent of the respondents in favor of grandparents' rights, "no matter what parents say," as one woman put it. (Perhaps a predictable outcome for grandparent-rich Florida). A similar call for readers' opinions in the Cleveland Plain Dealer gave critics of grandparents' rights a slight edge.

I expect the Supreme Court to offer a broader vision. At least I hope so. Too many have already ignored the fact that grandparents who fight for custody do, in fact, transform not only the divorce, but also the reshaping of families that follows.

The victory my grandmother spoke about jeopardized my father's second marriage, and seemed to confirm my mother's greatest fear -- that she wasn't, and would never be, a good mother. The latter issue isn't relevant to the case coming before the court: Troxel vs. Granville involves grandparents whose son committed suicide. But the court's decision will touch the millions of divorcies who, like my mother, already feel condemned for choosing the wrong mate and losing full custody of their children.

For us, the children, problems also arise. Grandparents with formal rights become parental. They think they know best, and they often do. But visitation rights create a sense of entitlement and give teeth to such claims even now. For years, my grandfather has referred to my grandmother as "your mother." And, even now, though I am 25 and filled with opinions of my own, my parents and grandparents often resemble cold-war superpowers: They don't talk, but work behind the scenes to guide me toward their respective ideologies.

And yet, despite these hassles, I must side with the majority. Life without my grandparents would have been a lesser life, a poorer existence. My earliest memories have nothing to do with a nuclear family and are without settings because I was moved around so much. But through it all, my grandparents were there, calling, visiting, sending cards and gifts. To them, I was "the baby," the first grandchild and the first boy to come from four daughters. To me, they were dependable, a security blanket I would never lose.

It was like that from the start. Before my dad drove east, they offered non-stop advice, sent every baby accessory imaginable, regularly visited and kept every memento they could find. All the earliest pictures of me come from their camera.

Such hovering couldn't have helped my parents' marriage. But once my dad met Colette, my stepmother whom I've always called Mom, the focus shifted. My grandparents no longer sought to augment their daughter's efforts. They aimed to get as much time with me as possible, for my mother and for themselves.

"It was just an insurance policy," Grandpa told me when I asked last week why they sought visitation rights. "We didn't even know we could do it until someone told us. We went for them because up until that time, we had been lied to, often. We just wanted to ensure that we had the 'pleasure' [sarcasm is his] of spending time with you."

What they really feared was a disappearance, Grandma told me. They saw me often before the split, but once Dad took off, the visits became erratic. Dad had become a massage therapist and we moved often. He rarely told anyone where we'd gone.

In Saratoga, about a year after he came East, he filed for divorce, claiming abandonment and seeking full custody. At the time, my grandparents had hired a private investigator. He never found us, but a friend of my grandparents did. He was a lawyer who happened to be in court near Albany on the day of a hearing. He saw my mother's name on the docket, then told the judge that he knew the family. They'd never let Damien go without a fight, he said.

He was right. When the custody battles finally ended, I was 8. Dad said he didn't strongly oppose my grandparents' rights, largely because he didn't take them seriously, and he just wanted the divorce to be over. With my grandparents' help, my mother won broad rights as well, and that concerned him more.

Eventually, however, she drifted further into alcoholism and out of my life. She would often call and promise a visit, then never show, nor even call. Between ages 8 and 18, I saw her less than a dozen times. She's sober now and I see her more often, but in the meantime, my grandparents replaced her. In her absence, they called almost weekly, and made plans six months in advance. Every winter, the three of us would go skiing for a week, and every summer I visited them in Scarsdale. From there we either took a trip, such as to Niagara Falls, or did the New York thing -- museums, plays and Yankees games.

Their consistent presence was exactly what I needed. Combined with the domestic routine my stepmother brought to Dad and me, those visits made me feel like I belonged to a normal family, one that wouldn't disappear or drastically change without warning. Slowly, I outgrew my fears and shame. My emotional muscles relaxed, and I simply grew up. A family, I began to see, was a patchwork of support systems, not a couples-based, genetic flowchart.

My father and stepmother largely encouraged that feeling, and the visits. But tensions often arose over gifts. We lived a frugal, blue-collar life, so whenever I returned to our rundown apartment with the latest Atari game, or the hippest Nikes, they worried. "They're trying to buy your love," Dad would say.

Truth is, my grandparents -- both entrepreneurs who pulled themselves through the Depression -- didn't know any better. The gifts weren't as much about gaining my love as showing their own. Still, I was a brat who was poor but manipulative enough to know how cool those games or sneakers would make me. My dad and stepmother's fears that I would become a stinking materialist were not totally unwarranted.

Sadly though, those fears grew to epic proportions. The result was the cold-war battle I mentioned earlier. To this day, my father and stepmother are convinced that I've gone over to the dark side, fallen in love with a rich, Jewish, sophisticated snobbery, thus snubbing the Christian hard work that they've come to revere. When I asked my dad if he ever felt jealous of my relationship with my grandparents, he said, "No," but admitted that "money is control." The wealth I saw when visiting my grandparents influenced me more than it should have, he said.

By the same token, my grandfather has a hard time believing that my father has taught me anything worthwhile. Like "The Swede" of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral," he is cut from the cloth of a post-World War II era. He didn't understand why my parents got married in the first place, can't fathom the simple, religious life my father now lives and -- above all else -- finds it appalling that my father did not take on debt to help me pay for college.

Ultimately, these issues of class are not relevant to every story of grandparents' rights. But underlying them are several simple truths. First, and this should come as no surprise, grandparents' values often don't coincide with parents'. Second, because of such disparities, fights are inevitable, particularly when grandparents are given a legal foot in the door. And third, a parent-grandparent mix of influence creates a parent-grandparent child. This is not necessarily a boon to a child's development, but judges should have the freedom to decide the issue. Tying their hands, limiting their vision to parents alone, will only hurt the thousands of children who, like myself, need the stability that an older generation offers.

In the long run, that stability is what will last. Without my grandfather, I would never have learned the joy of classical music or the taste of a Brooklyn Danish. Without Grandma, I might never have come to appreciate modern art, nor have been told about the importance of birth control. Together they pushed me to study at Oxford, and trusted my decision to forego law school to become a writer.

But ultimately, their love and consistency have been their greatest gifts. Neither would have been possible without the habit of visits mandated by the courts. There have been problems, but also great moments of strength. In the words of my grandmother: "We're dysfunctional, but so is everyone else. What counts is that we're there for each other."

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

MORE FROM Damien Cave

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Divorce Supreme Court