Elbow to elbow, Bernice Parker and Argin Laney sit on the same side of a restaurant booth, scouring the picture albums and newspaper clippings that chronicle the women’s 16-year friendship.
“Look at my babies, Bern,” Argin says as they bend their heads close together. “Look at Eric.”
“Look at all of them,” Bernice says as she swirls her finger over a picture of Argin with six of the nine grandchildren she has cared for since raising seven children of her own.
“Oh, if they were that size now,” says Argin, 78.
Together they sigh, then Bernice, 71, puts a hand on Argin’s arm, unable to erase the years for her but offering the comfort the two have given each other since 1996, when a news story featuring Argin was published in The N&O.
The story detailed what was becoming an alarming trend of grandparents rearing their children’s children, far too often because the parents abused drugs. At the time, Argin was 62, widowed and caring for the five children of one drug-addicted daughter, the son of another daughter and a great-granddaughter – ranging in age from 10 years to 4 months. All the while, she was working in a school cafeteria.
“She cared enough about her grandchildren to take them,” says Bernice, explaining why she contacted Argin after she read the article. “I know what it’s like when you have a grandmother who didn’t take you in and you end up living with strangers.”
Before they were 11, Bernice and her twin sister had been abandoned by their parents twice. So the headline, “When grandparents do it all again,” was like a magnet. What she felt even more strongly, however, was the pull of God.
“I know it was the holy spirit speaking to me, telling me to pick up the phone,” Bernice says. “It was like someone tapping me on the shoulder, saying this is a good thing for both of you.”
Friends become family
Bernice, who lives in Cary, visited Argin the week the story ran, and their connection was immediate and strong. Over the years, their bond has become unbreakable, forged by numerous fires and sealed with streams of laughter.
Argin has traveled through cervical cancer, knee replacement and thyroid surgery, always with Bernice at the wheel taking Argin, who doesn’t drive, to the hospital, to weekly chemo, to triweekly physical therapy appointments.
They enjoy telling the story of a hospital worker who made the mistake of telling Bernice she couldn’t wait in a family-only area.
“I stood up and said, ‘This is my sister,’ ” Argin says.
“We are sisters,” Bernice stresses.
“Hmm mm,” Argin drawls out, nodding her head.
With an assist from her husband, Larry, Bernice also has helped Argin find and move to new housing, fight an unfair eviction and gain legal custody of the grandchildren. The Parkers have chauffeured a grandson and his date on prom night. Their Sunday school classes have helped with Christmas gifts and bought appliances.
When Argin and Bernice met, Argin was laundering clothes for herself and seven children with a washboard in the bathtub.
Asking Argin what she would have done without Bernice all these years is like asking her what she would have done without air. God always provides.
“This was meant to be,” Argin says. “She was placed there for a reason, yessir. And her and Larry never failed me one time, not one time.”
For Bernice, the unflappably upbeat Argin has been a fountain of grace from whom she has drawn a constant supply of strength and joy.
“She talks about the blessing being on her, but the blessing has really been on our lives,” says Bernice, whose own heartaches have included health problems with Larry, the divorce of one of her two daughters and the needs of a physically disabled grandchild.
“If I were ever feeling blue, all I would have to do is call Argin, and we’d spend the day together, and it was always a blessing.”
Sharing the burdens
It’d be nice if the happy story of their friendship included feel-good epilogues on the seven children Argin was raising in 1996. In fact, Argin found herself adding her drug-addicted daughter’s newborn twins to the fold the next year – and having to quit her job to take care of the nine.
“In my good health and strength, I just wanted them to be together,” Argin says. “This many children need to grow up knowing each other and being there for each other if they can.”
One of the five boys has been to jail; another got involved in a gang. One of the two girls had a baby even though Argin sent them to live with a daughter in Georgia, hoping the less urban environment would better insulate them from troublemaking peers.
“These days, when they get in school, that’s where they run into problems,” Argin says. “I don’t care how good you raise them.”
“I saw how strict you were at home, but you can’t walk out the door with those boys when they go to school,” Bernice says. “You can’t choose their friends. They make their own choices.”
Better than most, Bernice and Argin know intimately the camaraderie, care and comfort of a friend well chosen.