(Photo by Leonna Heuring, Staff)
SIKESTON -- Jim Miller used to read about the generation gap and never really understood what it meant.
Now, he says, he knows.
In 1998, Miller and his wife, Janet, had only been married a couple of years when Janet's oldest daughter experienced severe personal problems. They were faced with a tough decision: either take in Janet's daughter's two children -- then 2-year-old Garren and 8-month-old Sam -- or put them into the state's foster care system.
"I felt a responsibility to these boys and no way was I going to turn my back on them," Janet said. "So Jim had a decision to make."
The couple's marriage was the second for both of them so the boys weren't Jim's grandchildren, at least not by blood.
"It was hard because it wasn't like she (the boy's mother) died in a car wreck or something. She had problems that were from her own choices," Jim recalled about making his decision to take in the boys.
Ultimately the couple decided to keep the boys, and today Jim said he wouldn't have had it any other way.
Not that there weren't any rough patches over the past six years, the couple said.
"When we took the boys in, my youngest daughter had just gotten married, and we were going to Kentucky Lake every weekend," Janet Miller recalled.
Eventually the camper was sold and the couple moved to a new home between Sikeston and Blodgett.
"Jim had raised two boys and I didn't know what to do with boys because I had girls," Janet said.
So Jim stepped in.
"He did things with them I couldn't have done and they opened his heart," Janet said.
From potty training to fishing trips, hunting and swimming together, Jim and the boys quickly began to bond. Every evening on his way home from work Jim would pick up the boys, and on their way home the trio would stop at a ditch near the house and look for turtles and other animals. Eventually Jim came to be known as "Papa" by the boys.
"It was an adjustment, and it was the right choice," Jim said. "They're my buddies."
Both Garren and Sam said they also like it when their "Papa" tells them scary stories.
"And me and my Papa go down to the tree, and one time I went and saw a snake in the tree in a hole, and I had to tell Papa," said Sam, 7.
Jim said he's learned just as much from the boys as they have from him.
"Garren is very studious, and I learned something new everyday because of the questions he asked. And 'Sam-Sam' and I probably do more things together, but there's no difference between the two."
And Jim has changed along the way, too.
"Before the boys, I had everything predetermined ahead of time." Jim admitted. "I knew what I was going to do a week in advance. And when the boys came into my life, that stopped.
"I've mellowed out through the years, and it just happened," Jim continued. "I've learned if I don't plan a week ahead, the world won't come to an end."
Jim has other grandchildren, too, and as far as he's concerned Sam and Garren are no different.
"My family --when we go see them -- they don't ask 'How's Janet's grandkids?' They say, 'How's the boys?' and that means a lot to me," said a teary-eyed Jim.
After Jim and Janet got the boys, Jim said he realized there are lots of grandparents in the area raising grandchildren.
"At our age we're on the downhill road," said Jim, 59. "And the kids are going on an uphill road and had a lot of wants and wanted to do this and that. We had to readjust our way of living to give them everything they needed."
And Jim said he knows a lot of grandparents make sacrifices, but they also get a lot out of it, too.
"You have to be willing to take them in, but you also have to be willing to give them up," said Janet, now 54.
That time came this past February and the boys returned to live with their mother in Blodgett.
"Their mom was doing so much better, and I knew this was right. We gave them a stable life but when mom got everything together then I felt like she needed to be with them and they with her," Janet explained.
Even though they don't live with "Papa and Grandma," the boys still come over a few times a week and make sure their rooms are still in place, Janet said. They even spend the night about once a week.
"I've really got a bond with them boys and they're just like mine and I'm gonna keep picking them up, and I enjoy being with them," Jim said. "They're just good little boys."
These days Jim said he has learned to "never say never." He's even thinking of checking into a foster grandparenting program.
"I had a choice to make, and I made the right one. I know I did," Jim said. "They're two great boys -- and I love them."