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A grandma's touch

New Tampa's favorite surrogate grandmother could have ended up a bitter woman. Instead, she delights in children and the little things in life.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000

TAMPA PALMS -- Marie Eiler is the best kind of grandma.

She's the kind every child wants: usually smiling, bearing gifts and offering hugs. But "Grandma Marie," as she is known here, isn't really a grandmother to most of the children who call her that.

Don't tell them -- she's really a babysitter.

"My kids are always thrilled to hear Grandma Marie is coming," said Shawn Oehrlein of Tampa Palms. "They don't ever feel like they're being left with a babysitter."

For many in New Tampa, the 70-year-old woman who wears an angel wrist watch and who extends presents to strangers has become their adopted grandma. To friends, she is an anomaly, a woman unjaded by a difficult, and sometimes lonely, life. They say she is a giving woman who delights in life's simplicity -- rainbows, flowers, pennies and children.

Especially children.

Pictures of children hang from the walls and sit on the shelves of her Palma Vista condominium. She brags about their manners, their accomplishments, as a grandmother would.

Raised in an orphanage and now a widow, Grandma Marie visits local children's homes and buys clothing and Christmas presents for abused and neglected kids. She irons and babysits for numerous families and watches their children during Bible studies.

"She just seems to really love children," said friend Dawn Sims of Pebble Creek. "They're a handful. But she just seems to have a lot of patience with them. I think they brighten her heart."

At the recent vacation Bible school at CrossRoads Community Church, the older woman blended right in with the 5- and 6-year-olds. She played "who's got your seashell," with hands hidden behind her back, and carefully colored a picture of a fish.

She sat at a child-sized table surrounded by girls with pigtails and Crayola crayons.

And when the teacher asked the children what the story was behind a picture of Jesus riding in a boat with a darkened sky behind him and waves below him, Grandma Marie leaned over and whispered the answer into the ear of a small blond girl: "He calmed the storm. Just tell her that."

Children are her pastime, something to keep her thoughts from straying to memories of her husband, David, who died in 1997 after years of health problems. She considers children her personal ministry.

"I'm not the type of person to just sit around," she says. "If I'm not busy, I get depressed."

Life as an orphan

Grandma Marie's love of children is best understood in light of her own childhood, which would have been harsh by any standards but seems particularly so in comfortable New Tampa.

Born Marie Hulse in Pittsburgh, she was the second youngest of 10 children, one of whom died young. When she was 41/2, her mother died giving birth to twins, a girl and boy, who also died.

A black-and-white photograph of her parents sits above her television, but many of the memories she has of her parents are painful ones.

One day soon after her mother's death, she walked into the kitchen, disrupting her father's card game. Angry, he tried to throw the frightened child in the casket, which was in the home. "I still remember that," she says. "It's so sad. I only remember the bad things."

Soon after, her father failed to pay the rent and movers showed up to remove the family's furniture and kick them out of the house.

The children stayed a while with their grandmother, but they were removed after welfare workers learned that the youngsters were sleeping on the floor. Marie and her siblings, who ranged from 5 to 19, were scattered among orphanages and extended family members.

The Good Shepherd's Home, an orphanage for girls in Pittsburgh, became her home. Her father came to visit only sporadically, and Christmas gifts were rare. The only gift she can remember receiving was a donated miniature cradle, but she had no doll to place in it.

"It's sad. You don't have a mother or father," Grandma Marie said. "There's nothing you can claim as our own ... And some kids today, they're so spoiled."

At 12 she was placed in a foster home; three years later she moved in with an older sister. She dropped out of high school in the 11th grade because she needed to work. She met her husband, who served in the Navy, and raised two children, who had two children each -- making her an official grandma.

Part of the family

Pat Lascher, who has known Marie Eiler for almost 20 years, considers her a close friend. They met at the Glassport Assembly of God on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, where her husband, Norman, was the pastor and Marie was a parishioner.

It was a community church that catered to inner-city families.

"Everything that had to deal with teenagers and children, Marie was right there," said Mrs. Lascher, who still lives in Pittsburgh. "If they came in and didn't have a decent shirt or have money to do something, it was nothing for Marie to pay their way or buy them a shirt.

"She would just do it. No fanfare."

The Eilers moved to Tampa about seven years ago because of David's health problems and to be closer to their children: David Eiler, who works at a Tampa cleaners, and Peggy Herzig, who owns a clothing business and lives in Tampa Palms.

Oehrlein, the Tampa Palms mother, got to know Grandma Marie through the Community Bible Study group that meets at St. James United Methodist Church. While the women study the Bible, Grandma Marie watches the younger children.

Oehrlein's children, Clayton, 3, and Megan, 8, fell in love with Grandma Marie, so much so that Oehrlein started asking her to come to her home and watch them when she and her husband have to be away.

She is part of the family, Oehrlein said, filling in for extended relatives who live in Texas and Illinois. When Oehrlein had pneumonia, Grandma Marie came to her house, did her laundry and watched her children without being asked.

"I had no one here, and here she came and helped," Oehrlein said. "She didn't have to at all. She's just very giving and loving."

Dawn Sims also met Grandma Marie through the Bible group, and soon considered her part of her family of five.

When Grandma Marie comes to babysit, Sims said she typically brings her children little gifts. And even though she is sweet with the children, she is firm.

"She keeps my kids minding their P's and Q's like I do," Sims said. "She is not a pushover."

Sims has been amazed at Grandma Marie's tenderness and childlike wonder. She remembers watching her friend delight at the sight of a found penny.

"I'm like, "Marie, it's just a penny,' " Sims said. "She says, "Oh, but it's a penny for my radio ministry.' "

In addition to earning money babysitting and ironing, Grandma Marie has collected more than $80 in pennies to buy radios for missionaries.

"She's very unique," Sims said. "She loves just the little things in life. She loves to see a pretty flower or a rainbow. She's taught my kids that wonder."

New Tampa's favorite surrogate grandmother realizes that she could have ended up a bitter woman. She believes God has kept a close watch on her throughout life.

Contemplating her difficult childhood, she remarked, almost with surprise: "You'd think I'd turn out bad. But I think I turned out pretty good. I can't believe I'm 70. I never thought I'd make it."

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