‘Right before I graduated he was admitted to the hospital and I was fishing around in his wallet when an old black-and-white photo fell out’

Humans of New York

I was raised by my grandmother. And any little thing could trigger her. One time I got mad and told her: ‘You’re not my mom.’

I was only six years old. But she put me on an airplane to go live with my mother for a month, who I didn’t even know. My grandfather James had to drop me off at the airport– and both of us were sobbing.

But he didn’t have any say in the matter because he wasn’t my biological grandfather. James was my grandmother’s second husband, and she abused him as much as me. He had been given two medals during World War II, which he kept in his dresser– but he wasn’t the ‘alpha male type.’

Humans of New York

My grandmother walked all over him. But James was the only source of kindness that I ever had. When my grandparents got divorced, we moved into a small apartment together. He became more of a roommate than a father.

During the week he’d go to work. And I’d go to school. Then on Saturday nights we’d get dinner together. There wasn’t much guidance. We didn’t have critical conversations. He was just a nice guy— that was it.

Humans of New York

James always seemed a bit two-dimensional to me. But right before I graduated high school he was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. And I was fishing around in his wallet for an insurance card, when an old black-and-white photo fell out.

It was a picture of a young man in uniform. I asked James if it was him, and he said: ‘No, that’s Leatherwood.’ He then told me a story about how he’d fallen sick during the war, and a young man named Hilliard Leatherwood had taken his place. Soon afterward Leatherwood was captured by the Germans and executed.

Humans of New York

My grandfather always felt like it should have been him instead. He felt like he owed Leatherwood a debt, and he’d been carrying that photo for 50 years. For a brief moment I was given a window into a whole different man.

One that had lived an entire life before I was born. My grandfather passed away on Thanksgiving Day 2002. He’d been the only adult member of my family that hadn’t rejected me.

And without him I don’t know where I’d be today. I keep that picture of Leatherwood with me, to remember the man who saved my grandfather. And to honor how my grandfather saved me.

Humans of New York

Feedback to this story:

“We can find love and acceptance in strange places. His life was spared so he could spare yours. And I like that you are carrying on the picture legacy of the man who took his place that day. He showed you love and kindness, letting you into the light that beyond blood, family can also be anyone who truly and genuinely cares. He made the Grand in grandfather so very amazing.” — Martin Beck Nworah

“Crying my eyes out. The one person who loved and cared for you was not biologically related but that doesn’t matter. Blood doesn’t make a family, Love does.” — Antoinette An

“What a beautiful story. I am sure you are making your Grandad even more proud everyday by carrying on the way he lived and honouring his memory.” — Ata Rahman

About the author:
This story first appeared on Humans of New York Facebook page and is published here with permission. For more amazing stories and photography buy the book HUMANS by Brandon Stanton.

(If you wish to submit an essay (reflections on life), personal story (inspirational or humorous) or something that you witnessed that inspired you, please go HERE.)

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