Before Teresa McCollister ever saw her brand-new granddaughter bundled up in a hospital nursery with her full, rose-petal lips and wrinkly newborn skin, some worries she now calls embarrassing preoccupied her.
"How can I love a biracial child?" she recalls wondering. How would she explain to friends and family that this brown-skinned girl is her flesh and blood? How could she be a grandmother at 34?
Then McCollister met Autumn Elizabeth Waitt. She held the infant's miniature fists and swathed her in a little pink sleeper to protect her soft, hours-old body. Giving Autumn up for adoption, an idea the family had briefly discussed, never came up again.
McCollister instead became a doting, involved grandparent. She found that her love for her granddaughter recast her views on race, culture and family.
Her experience is just one of thousands celebrated this weekend as National Grandparents Day is marked today in homes and senior centers around the region. But McCollister's story is different from those of most of her fellow grandparents.
Grandparents sneak grandchildren candy when their parents aren't around. They buy the best holiday, birthday and graduation gifts. They are accomplished storytellers and advice-givers, and they laugh a lot. But they aren't too often 38 and 37.
Those are the respective ages of Teresa McCollister, or "Gamme," and her husband, Charles McCollister, "Pop." Autumn is now an adorable, polite 4-year-old.
No parties are planned today for the McCollisters. In their Waldorf home, every day is Grandparents Day.
It's been that way since 1995, when Teresa McCollister jarringly entered the grandmother realm. She had exactly two days to get used to the idea.
"Maybe it would have been easier if I had had time to adjust to the idea that Christy was pregnant," she said recently at a table in the noisy food court at St. Charles Towne Center. "I was freaked out about the whole thing."
In March 1995, her daughter Christina, then 15, had been feeling ill. One doctor had diagnosed a sinus infection. Another said the teenager was 39 weeks pregnant.
That was a Friday. On Sunday, Christina gave birth to a 6-pound 5-ounce, healthy baby girl whose father happened to be black. For a while McCollister's comfortable, middle-class, white world crumbled.
"I just went outside and screamed and cried," McCollister said. "At first, it was hard for me to speak it out loud: 'She's my granddaughter and she's mixed. She's black and white.' I couldn't say it."
In the four years that followed, change came with dizzying speed. Autumn's father left for California when she was 2 weeks old. Christina graduated from high school on time.
Some family members virtually disowned the rest of the family for embracing a biracial child. Autumn's relatives on her father's side drifted in and out of the picture. Christina learned to fix her daughter's curly hair. "Pop" and Autumn adopted weekly salad-eating rituals. McCollister quit her job to become a full-time grandmother.
Meanwhile, Autumn--named for the blending of two seasons--rejuvenated the family with her spunk and charm.
"Autumn is our therapy," McCollister said. "Having her around has taught me to be more patient. Having her in common [with my husband] has made our marriage better."
It's no longer hard for McCollister to say she has a biracial grandchild. Now, she doesn't always notice the stares that leaped from her own blond hair to the dark-brown bun on top of Autumn's head. The invasive questions still sting, but she's used to them. And when people do double takes, she said, "I just feel like smacking them."
Autumn's family explains her dual heritage through books with multiethnic characters and black and white dolls. In addition to Christina, McCollister has a daughter and a son from a previous marriage. Her husband has two sons from his previous marriage. All of them live, Brady Bunch-style, in a split-level house in the Dorchester subdivision near the Towne Center.
Autumn's aunt and uncles have always been supportive, McCollister said. The children made a cake emblazoned with "Welcome home, Baby Autumn" to greet their parents, Christina and Autumn when they came home from the hospital.
Autumn was harder for other relatives to accept. When she was just a few weeks old, McCollister mailed a letter she wrote called "Unconditional Love" to the entire family, including her ex-husband, Christina's father. The simple, one-page note implored hostile relatives to lend their support.
"Please search your hearts," read the letter. "Christina is still the same great girl she used to be, and Autumn is truly a miracle."
Slowly, family members came around. There are still tense moments, McCollister said. Generations of prejudice can't be erased overnight, even through the innocence of a curly-haired girl with big eyes who loves horses and her princess costume.
"I wanted them to feel how I felt about her," McCollister said. "It just upset me when I couldn't make them accept her. When you look at her, how can you not feel love and affection?"
These days, Teresa McCollister marvels at how Autumn has changed the family. McCollister looks at the letter she sent out and her blue eyes brim with tears.
"I see situations differently now when it comes to race," McCollister said as her granddaughter played hopscotch in the living room. "I can't judge people because it would kill me to see Autumn judged based on the color of her skin. I'm in love with my granddaughter--she is my flesh and blood, no matter what color she is."