The moment her daughter received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, that changed. The recent divorcee called home with good news, and bad. She was visiting for Christmas and leaving for the Middle East on Jan. 1. Her parents needed to make arrangements to pick up her two young daughters from their father and keep them, for six months.
Nichols went from seeing her granddaughters, Ivie and Bailey, twice a year, to becoming the full-time caretaker of a 9- and 6-year-old and carefully guiding them through the emotional battlefield of dealing with deployment. (The picture at right shows Nichols with her granddaughters on a special excursion.)
“I was stunned,” Nichols said. “I didn’t know what to think. So much went through my head.”
As Nichols and her husband enrolled the girls in school, changed their work schedules, redecorated bedrooms and tried to explain deployment to their very non-military town, Nichols began looking for advice – and found none.
“There was nothing to say what to do to take care of grandchildren, during deployment or not,” she said. “A lot of it that we needed was how to deal with the emotional turmoil inside of you.”
Nichols said she thinks that there isn’t much discussion among deployment guardians because they simply don’t have time.
“They’re probably squirreled away in their house, just like I was, trying to take care of those kids,” she said.
When her daughter left, the family didn’t hear from her again for over two weeks. They were officially on their own.
“That first beginning was very difficult,” Nichols said.
Soon, she was explaining the situation to her friends, who empathized, though did not fully understand. Then, she registered the girls at the local school where the administration had never dealt with military children before. Nichols said teachers were quick to try to help.
“It was like lack of knowledge. They didn’t know how to help,” she said. “The number one problem within the community is that they wanted to support, but they didn’t know what to do.”
Then, there was the transition for the girls to a new house and new rules. There were wars over vegetables. “We weren’t allowed to leave the dinner table unless we were done eating everything,” said her oldest granddaughter Ivie, now 14. “I’m not used to eating vegetables at every meal. It was really tough.”
Ivie said the kids at school also didn’t understand why she couldn’t call her mom every night. “Their moms were gone on business trips but it wasn’t the same,” Ivie said. “They couldn’t relate.”
After the six months of adjustments and quick learning, Nichols couldn’t shake the feeling that she was meant to keep helping military families like hers – left in a tough position, with little support. So she created the website, Deployed Grandma, to reach out to other grandparents left behind when their children headed to battle. “I felt I had to get this out,” she said.
Now, Nichols speaks at yellow ribbon events, homecomings and deployment briefings. She is welcomed with hugs and tears from families who are thankful for her insight and willingness to share. “I just started writing about things I experienced and hoped it would give those people in that situation some type of information to fall back on,” she said. “Now they come up to me to say thank you.”
Nichols has written a book about her deployment experiences, “Deployed Grandparents Being Parents.” And her granddaughters, now ages 14 and 10, have kicked off their own website, Deployed Kids, to help other military kids. “It’s fun,” Ivie said. “We write stuff and the other kids tell us what they’re going through.”
Talking it through is Ivie’s top advice for other military kids, especially those left with relatives in a non-military town. “When you talk to people who don’t understand, they don’t know how to reply,” Ivie said. “But your guardians are going through the same thing you are.”
As her granddaughters prepare to say goodbye to their mother again this summer for a year-long deployment, Nichols is preparing to help them with the separation. This time, however, the girls will spend the year with their stepfather. “As we go forth with this next deployment, I’ll be able to help them and we can reach out to other kids too who are dealing with it,” Nichols said.
“I’ve been inspired to do this. I can’t move away from it,” she said.