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BLEAK INHERITANCE

If her four grandchildren ever come back from Nebraska, Lynette will be ready. She keeps a blue dirt bike propped against the wall of the back porch, and she has plastic-covered children's books, like Peter and the Wolf and Smokey Bear, stacked in one corner of her living room. The fifty-year-old west Valley grandmother still keeps one drawer in her dresser full of crayons and extra clothes and other odds and ends that children always seem to need. And she stores the children's school reports, health certificates and crayoned scribblings in a file on her kitchen table.

When Lynette looks at these relics of the short months her grandchildren lived with her last year, she worries the usual grandmotherly worries. Are the children going to the doctor? Are their teeth attended to? Are they behind in their schoolwork? Are they making friends with other children?

But the questions she asks most frequently are far from usual. They are strange and troubling. Are her grandchildren being sexually abused? Or beaten? In the file on her kitchen table, along with the health certificates and grade reports, Lynette has documents from Phoenix Police Department and records from Maricopa County Superior Court that lend credence to her fears.

Her story is tragic, and all too common. (See the related story on facing page.) It is a story of generations of women born into disorganized blue-collar families, unhappy women who have unconsciously passed a legacy of abuse from one generation to another, like weird family heirlooms. It is a story of mothers and daughters who hate each other, and of the children who are their victims. It is the story of a mother who turned her daughter over to the custody of the state. And finally, it is the story of a grandmother who, after rescuing herself from the cycle of abuse, hungers to rescue her grandchildren.

Lynette was emotionally battered by her mother. Unwittingly, she did the same thing to her daughter Tammi. And Lynette says Tammi's eleven-year-old daughter Celestina has also been abused.

Lynette has battled state officials over the fate of the children for more than a year. And now the grandmother has almost despaired because Tammi moved from Phoenix to southwestern Nebraska over the Labor Day weekend. She took her four children: the twins, Celestina and Bobby, nine-year-old Marta, and seven-year-old Ricardo.

It is a measure of the kind of life Tammi leads that Lynette doesn't know which of two former husbands her daughter is with. One was accused of physically abusing Celestina; the other of molesting her. (Neither man could be reached for comment, and Tammi did not respond to requests for interviews.)

Lynette is realizing, only too painfully, that the state is simply not capable of fixing complex family problems. She realizes this because she herself has changed in the past few years. After three unhappy marriages, many low-paying jobs and painful clashes with Tammi, Lynette is only one semester away from becoming a registered nurse.

But in her bleakest moments, Lynette wonders if there is any hope for her grandchildren. She wonders if she can break the grim cycle so her great-grandchildren won't have to live as she and her daughter have lived, without fully understanding the legacy that drives them.

THE BLACK-AND-WHITE snapshot Lynette has of herself as a child looks as if it were taken by Dorothea Lange, the photographer of impoverished Depression-era farmers. In the photo, Lynette stands shyly behind her cousin in the bleak barnyard on their grandparents' Missouri farm. Both children have dirty, sober little faces. Her cousin's dress has a hole in it. "I grew up poor," Lynette says.

She also grew up in her grandparents' house, because her mother, a sometime cocktail waitress, wasn't around much. Her grandparents' sons, Lynette's uncles, lived with them. The cycle began when the uncles molested Lynette as a little girl. "No one believed me then," she says. "I just learned to stay away from my uncles. It was different in the country, I guess." Her mother was unwilling to help her. Lynette doesn't like to talk about her mother, except to say she "cussed~~" and had six sons by six different men. Lynette's mother would fetch her from her grandparents for short visits punctuated by discipline with a belt.

The belt left its mark. "I didn't realize how angry I was," Lynette recalls. "For years I'd have these dreams that I was beating and beating my mother. I would wake up in a cold sweat."

She says her mother is still alive and that she survives in Missouri on the generosity of a sister, and a monthly social security check. "She might as well be dead," says Lynette.

Lynette grew up fast. She was 16 when she met a 32-year-old bus driver. He fathered her first child. A few months after Tammi was born, Lynette was working at the lunch counter of the local drugstore. She fell in love with and married Tom, a 23-year-old licensed practical nurse who sold vitamins at the counter on the opposite wall.

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Terry Greene