The Heartwarming Story of a Five-Year-Old Girl Who Asked Her Neighbors to Be Her Grandparents

Bill and Arlene were the most amazing neighbors ever. I’ve got a certificate on my wall to prove it.

collage of photosCourtesy Katelynn Martinez (6)

It was just the three of us—my parents and me. My dad is a truck driver, and when I was little, he was gone most of the time, delivering barbed wire and other livestock supplies around the Midwest. So my mom was almost like a single mother.

We lived in a small house in Brighton, Colorado, in a neighborhood of 1970s ranch houses. We had red shag carpeting and wood paneling and faux brick in the finished part of the basement, and a big yard with plenty of room for our five dogs and two cats to run around.

We moved there on my third birthday. My first memory is our neighbor Arlene handing me strawberries from her garden through a hole in the chain-link fence. She and her husband, Bill, lived next door.

Arlene spent a lot of time working in the garden, and I was always talking to her from our yard. I was a chatterbox. I think what drew me to Arlene and Bill is that they never got tired of listening to me gab. I also think Arlene saw a lot of herself in me—we were both lonely, anxious kids—and that may be why she always took the time to listen to me. Bill too. It was a wonderful connection.

There weren’t any kids my age in the neighborhood, so I mostly played in the yard with the dogs. I had a lot of imaginary friends—a whole family, actually, with a husband, in-laws, children, a best friend…no joke. Weird kid.

One day, my parents asked Bill and Arlene whether they’d watch me while they went out on a date. This worked well for everyone, so it became a some­what monthly occurrence. Arlene and Bill didn’t have kids. They had a spare room in their house, which became “my” room. I had a cabinet and boxes of toys and books in that room.

Arlene and I would do crafts together. We were always putting tiny sequins on things. Bill taught me how to ride a bike and later how to drive the lawn tractor and eventually a car (stick and automatic). He was always fixing something in his garage and always smelled like oil. I would wander over to chatter at him, and he would always stop and listen to me, just like Arlene did.

When I was about five, I had an idea. My parents were watching TV when I spit it out: “What if I adopted Bill and Arlene as my grandparents?”

My parents said I could go over and ask them tomorrow. The next day, 
I knocked on Bill and Arlene’s door, sat down in their living room, and said, “Will you guys be my grand­parents?” They started crying and enthusiastically accepted. Soon after, they printed out an adoption certificate, and it hung on their living room wall from then on.

adoption certificate and pull quote text: "Every child deserves enthusiastically reciprocated love."Courtesy Katelynn Martinez

I remember being surprised that they took my offer so seriously—not because I wasn’t serious but because I was just a kid. They could have laughed it off. Thinking of that moment still brings tears to my eyes. There is something truly magnificent about a child offering up her love and adults being so ecstatic to accept it. Every child in this world deserves 
enthusiastically reciprocated love.

From the day I adopted them, I called Bill and Arlene Grandpa and Grandma. Pretty soon, my parents were calling them Mom and Dad. Even our animals loved Bill and Arlene and would often sneak out of our yard to go visit them. Arlene always kept treats in her pockets for them.

In the winter, Bill would attach a snowplow to the front of the lawn tractor and we would plow the block and all the neighbors’ driveways together. One of my first times on the tractor, I plowed down our chain-link fence, and Bill just chuckled in his laid-back way. We eventually replaced it with a nice, tall wooden “privacy” fence. My dad and Bill installed it together. They cut a small gate in the top of one section so we could open it and still chat. They also added a window at the bottom for the dogs.

Over the years, Bill and Arlene Howe supported me in all my dreams. They encouraged me to apply for college, even though I didn’t have the money to go. And when I got accepted to Colorado State University, they presented me with a fund. They told me they’d been putting away money since the day I adopted them.

It took me five years, but I graduated with a degree in forest management, and now I work as a forest health technician for the Colorado State Forest Service.

Since I’ve become an adult, I’ve learned more about my grand­parents. They both grew up poor. Bill’s mother died when he was eight, and he and his siblings—there were eight of them—went to live with relatives. Arlene had some health problems and struggled with alcoholism when she was young. Their lives weren’t as perfect as they appeared to be through the fence. But the two of them always seemed genuinely happy in each other’s company. Bill told me that once on a trip in their RV he listened to Arlene talk about raising honeybees for 200 miles and he never tired of the sound of 
her voice.

Arlene passed away in 2013, two days before our adoption anniversary. Bill gave her eulogy. At the end, he said, “Arlene leaves behind her husband, Bill. And the greatest joy of her life, her granddaughter, Katie.”

After the funeral, Bill gave me the ring he’d gifted to Arlene on their 25th wedding anniversary. It’s a simple gold band that I wear on my ring finger as a reminder of the kind of love I wish to put into this world. Next, read what happened when a girl wrote a simple thank you note to her postman and got hundreds of responses.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest