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A bond transcending generations
For a girl and her great-grandfather, the thanks run both ways

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

The morning is still dark when they set out for their first bus stop. Keke leads the way -- a wiry girl of 11 with a Hello Kitty backpack, bouncing along the sidewalk's gentle rise. Behind her trudges her great-grandfather, Tony Bruce -- slower, breathing hard against the upward climb.

They are not an ordinary couple, a gray-haired man of 66 who is battling lung cancer and an ebullient sixth-grader who loves animals and math and Harry Potter. But they have been a family of two since Keke was an infant, lately sharing a small basement apartment near Olney and riding buses for more than three hours a day to get to school and work.

Since Bruce had lung surgery in the spring, bills have piled up and luxuries have been few. But personifying the spirit of Thanksgiving, he considers himself blessed -- to be heading to a nonprofit group in Silver Spring for what he calls "the best job I've ever had" and to care for the child who leans into him and falls asleep as their bus clatters on.

For him, the holiday has become a high point, a time when he revels in the logistics of getting turkeys to the same people who rely on him the rest of the year when their cupboards are bare. "They make it all worthwhile," Bruce said. "They trust me, and they depend on me."

It turns out that people are inspired by him, too -- coworkers, friends and more than a few strangers, one of whom was so impressed to hear his story at a recent awards ceremony that she shook his hand, looked at Keke and said, "She is lucky to have you."

Bruce clearly believes the luck goes both ways.

As the two of them venture into the world one morning, Keke is talking about the beautiful sunrises she sometimes sees from the bus window.

Her grandfather tells her the sun will come up that day at 6:54 a.m.

"How do you know these things?" she demands.

They board the 51 bus at 6:10 a.m., the first of three that will take them to Keke's school in Takoma Park. They are regulars in the seats up front, where Bruce often chats with the bus driver as Keke drifts off, using her backpack as a makeshift pillow.

'You can't raise that baby'

Bruce has cared for Keke since she was 2 months old and her mother, then 16, was not able to raise her. Some people had their doubts. "You can't raise that baby," he was told. His answer: Why not? He had already raised a granddaughter through her adolescence. With Keke, he just started sooner.

At 11, Keke is a school cheerleader who says she wants to be a veterinarian or an "animal cop," like the ones she sees on Animal Planet. As she is delighted to note, her full name is Natashzea Kevonna Bruce. Keke, for short.

"He has a real love and a willingness to raise a child during a period of life when most of us could not take the stress and strain of a healthy, live-wire young person," says Ron Wylie, executive director of Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington, the organization for which Bruce works.

The bond has so impressed Wylie that he plans to start a grandparents support group.

Already, a handful of people pitch in to cover Keke's tuition at nearby Adventist school. Bruce, who is Baptist, gets by on Social Security benefits and a minimum-wage paycheck.

"He has a very limited income," Wylie said, "and he gives that girl everything. . . . The clothes she needs, the cheerleading outfits. I don't think he spoils her, but he goes all out."

Bruce divorced in the 1960s, a father of three grown sons and a daughter who died at 4 months old. It helped as he has raised Keke that Carla Bruce, her grandmother (and Tony's former daughter-in-law), who contends with illness, has assisted with child care. Keke's mother lives out of state and has no regular contact with her. Her father has not been involved in her life.

Keke arrives at school one recent morning at 7:42. Bruce takes two more buses to get to work at Adventist Community Services on Sligo Avenue. It is 8:42 a.m., about 2 1/2 hours after he set out.

At work, his title is assistant to the director; he does case management, meets with clients, collects food at pantries, does administrative work. He proudly details his organization's Thanksgiving efforts, which are done with the help of local businesses and charities. Two years ago, it gave Thanksgiving fixings to 169 families. Last year, it was 315. This year: 615, including Rosa Benoit's. Benoit arrived for a turkey Tuesday.

"How are you today, Rosa?" Bruce asks.

"Not too good," she admits.

Benoit says the medication she has taken is churning in her stomach, which is empty because she has no food at home. Bruce knows her story -- how she lost a job, was evicted. Now Benoit lives in Takoma Park with her daughter and two grandchildren.

Bruce finds her a good-size turkey, directs her to a shopping bag filled with groceries and lets her know she can collect a small bag of fried chicken donated that day.

"Thank you," she says, adding that she will make a meal of the chicken and bread, then thanks him again.

His affection is often tinged with dry humor. "Oh Lord," he says as he notices Shaneza Yung, a single mom of four whom he has known for several years. "Oh, C'mon," he adds, feigning annoyance. They laugh.

"He takes very good care of us," Yung volunteers. "He's A-No. 1."

For Thanksgiving, Bruce and Keke will feast on roast chicken -- Bruce is allergic to turkey -- with Keke's grandmother and cousin. There also will be sweet potato pie, the same recipe Bruce's great-grandmother used when he was a boy growing up in eastern Ohio.

"He's the greatest cook ever," says Melonie Bruce, a granddaughter who came to live with him when she was 12, who says she thinks of herself as "more of his daughter than his granddaughter." She adds: "He taught me a lot about myself. He taught me how to love, he taught me how to forgive and forget, he taught me how be patient."

In a parallel he has often thought about, his great-grandparents had a big hand in his growing up.

Just last week there came one more challenge: Bruce was told he and Keke will have to look for a new place to live because their landlord is selling their building. "It's a trying time for him," said Paul Meacham, a close friend.

Times have gotten tougher, too, since Bruce had part of his left lung removed in April. The surgery went well, and the cancer is gone, he said. But the medical bills were high, even with his Medicare coverage, and he was hospitalized again in September with a pulmonary embolism.

Lately, they have had fewer outings to see movies, feed ducks, dine at IHOP.

Honor amid challenges

Then, late last month, Bruce was invited to a county breakfast where he received an award as an outstanding participant in a senior employment program run by the Jewish Council for the Aging, the group that first connected Bruce to his job at Adventist. The JCA cited his commitment to his job and his great-granddaughter.

He was honored to get the award, then surprised it came with $1,000. When he came back to their table, Keke stood up and hugged him. He kissed the top of her head.

That day, they went IHOP. They caught a movie, "Where the Wild Things Are." It made Keke sad at the end, so Bruce took her for ice cream.

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