Remembering Lucille Robinson

Deborah Sarsgard introduced us to Lucille Robinson, a grandmother in Baltimore who was raising a house full of grandchildren on her own.  We had Lucille and some other grandparent caregivers discuss their lives and the challenges they faced on The Marc Steiner Show.  Then we decided to spend more time with Lucille, and the interviews we recorded became the first three episodes of Just Words.  We’d like to thank Deborah for sharing some of her thoughts and memories of Lucille with us, which you can read  by clicking here.

Lucille Robinson was my hero and her death, although not entirely unexpected, leaves me with a mixed bag of feelings: profound gratitude that she allowed me to enter her life yet deep anger at the systems that forced her to expend her dwindling energy fighting just to subsist.  During the six years I was a social worker with the Grandparents Family Connections program, I worked closely with Lucille and the grandchildren she was raising.  Her grace, feistiness, earthy elegance, and compassion will always remain with me.  She was my teacher about the human spirit, my inspiration, and my dear friend. 

Baltimore should be putting up banners honoring Lucille and all the other grandparents who are raising the city’s children.  Instead, every obstacle imaginable was placed in her path from the day she got the call from the Department of Social Services that the first grandchild she took in was about to be placed in foster care.  She did not hesitate for a second to take him in or to answer the calls to pick up the next five grandchildren.  They were turned over to her without as much as a can of formula or a box of diapers.  She went through the arduous process of becoming a foster parent (an option denied most grandparent caregivers who take the children directly from DSS rather than through the courts) so she would have enough money to meet their basic needs, but was soon disqualified because her home—like most in inner-city neighborhoods–did not pass the agency’s inspection.  Her food stamps were constantly cut off because she did not attend reconsideration hearings (the letter would arrive two days after the hearing was scheduled).  Even when she was tethered to an oxygen tank, she’d have to spend an entire day at DSS waiting to see a worker, to be told the mistake would be corrected the next month (and what were the children to eat until then?).  I went with her whenever I could and we talked about how differently she was treated when a white professional woman was with her.  She was profoundly aware of classism and racism, yet never expressed bitterness.  She believed “we reap what we sow.”

It was much the same story with her medical care.  Somehow she had been convinced to sign up for a Medicare opt-out HMO plan.  The doctors who had the expertise to treat her lung disease and might have prolonged her life would not accept this plan and few of the drugs she needed were covered.  Once again, it was only when I was able to accompany her to medical visits that a token effort was made to ease some of her symptoms.  She saw one of these doctors the day she died and was told she was “fine”; she knew she wasn’t.  These doctors could have learned so much about the resiliency of the human spirit and the wisdom that comes from a life of struggle had they looked up from their files into the face of the human being before them and listened to her story.  Had they only “seen” her, I know they would have at least tried to save her life.

I will never forget how excited Lucille was when Marc and Jessica came to interview her for “Just Words.”  She could not believe that her humble life was “newsworthy.”  I will always remember, as well, the outpouring of kindness from the Baltimore community that followed the three broadcasts.  Jessica asked me if I would be the intermediary for those who wanted to make holiday donations to the family.  I drove all around the city and county picking up donations and met up with people in mall parking lots and pizza parlors to collect gift baskets and envelopes stuffed with cash.  Some were wealthy, but most were working people who knew they were one paycheck away from being in Lucille’s shoes.  People’s generosity and willingness to be moved by her story made these wonderful holidays for me as well as Lucille.

Lucille was profoundly distressed by the violence that plagues Baltimore and tried to “talk sense” into the young men on the corners.  She lost one of her grandsons to the drug culture.  Before he was incarcerated, she said to me, “You know, I wish he didn’t have a record so he could go to Iraq.”  I knew Lucille was against the war and asked what made her say that.  She replied, “I know he’s going to be killed by a gun anyway, and I’d rather him die a hero in Iraq than be gunned down on the streets of Baltimore and be just another statistic.”  Her other grandchildren are doing well and, in fact, her 21-year-old granddaughter has stepped up to raise the two young boys who remain at home. 

Lucille was far more comfortable helping others than admitting she needed help.  When she found out I was leaving Family Connections and did not yet have another job, she was worried.  “Honey,” she said, “I don’t have much, but if you ever find yourself without a roof over your head, I have a double bed and you can share my yogurt and crackers.”  That was the last time I saw her.  That was Lucille.

Deborah Sarsgard
Baltimore, MD

 To read Marc’s tribute to Lucille, click here.