The school day is over, and Cathy Vogel heads for the kitchen, bracing herself for the coming whirlwind. Minutes later, Brandon, Christopher and Kellie-Noelle burst through the door.
"Ma, I'm thirsty," announces Kellie-Noelle. "Ma, what's to eat?" // asks Brandon. "Ma, I learned that the world is going to be frozen in 50 billion years," he adds.
Mrs. Vogel handles the children's requests as a pot of coffee brews for her husband, Norm, and she takes a phone call from her office about a real estate deal she's handling. It's a juggling act familiar to many parents.
But the Vogels aren't supposed to be parenting anymore. Not at this stage in their lives. Not when Mrs. Vogel, a real estate agent, is turning 50 next month and her husband, a television photographer, is already 56. Together, the couple had already raised six children in their Brooklyn home.
Brandon, 11, Christopher, 10, and Kellie-Noelle, 6, aren't their children. They are their grandchildren. The Vogels, like a growing number of grandparents across the country, are raising them.
It isn't easy, and the Vogels don't try to sugarcoat their conflicting feelings.
Mrs. Vogel had visions of romantic candlelit dinners for two. There would be time and money for exotic trips abroad.
"It's a feeling of being trapped," Mrs. Vogel explains frankly. "But you love them."
The couple didn't plan it this way. When the Vogels married in 1971, it was a second marriage for both. She had four children from her first marriage. He had two.
"At any time, there were between four to six children in this house," Mrs. Vogel says. It was hectic, to say the least.
Ten years ago, the Vogels thought they were were nearly done as parents. Their youngest child was getting ready to move out, and the prospect of joining the ranks of empty-nesters filled them with, well, glee.
Mrs. Vogel had visions of romantic candlelit dinners for two. There would be time and money for exotic trips abroad. If they had a mind to, they could go dancing in the middle of the week.
But it didn't work out that way.
Brandon was only 8 months old when his grandparents gained custody of him. His younger brother, Christopher, was 3 when he arrived. The Vogels took Kellie-Noelle home from the hospital the day after she was born.
It is a sad, complicated story that brought the three siblings to the Vogels. Substance abuse, child abuse and neglect all played a role, the couple says.
daughter suffers from massive psychological problems," Mrs. Vogel says.
They haven't heard from the children's mother, who had her tubes tied after Kellie-Noelle was born, in three years. The father is under a court order to stay away from the children.
The Vogels don't know what would have happened to the children if they had not stepped in.
"We absolutely saved those children's lives," says Mr. Vogel, a veteran photographer for WJZ television.
Other grandparents are doing the same. A wave of substance abuse, child abuse, neglect and abandonment is robbing an increasing number of children of their parents.
Between 1992 and 1993, the number of children living in households where grandparents are the sole caregivers increased by 17 percent, according to a study by the American Association of Retired Persons. More than 633,000 households are now headed solely by grandparents -- 39 percent with incomes of less than $20,000 a year.
"The emotional, financial and legal issues they often face can be overwhelming," says C. Anne Harvey, programs director for the AARP.
The Vogels know how hard it can be.
"It was a tremendous adjustment," says Mrs. Vogel, who feels the difference in raising children a second time around.
"It doesn't seem to me that I was this tired" the first time, she says. "Sometimes, I just fall into bed like I'm in a coma! And realistically, we know we have 10, 12 more years."
Often, it is their humor that gets them through.
"You see that?" says Mr. Vogel pointing to a religious statue of Joseph. "He's my hero. My man! I often look over at him and say, 'Joseph! Joseph! Help me!' "
Mrs. Vogel jokes that if there's such a thing as reincarnation, one thing is certain: "If ever I come back in any life, I'm going to be barren. I have raised enough children for three lifetimes."
For the time being, Mrs. Vogel lives out this life rising every day at 4:30 a.m. to put coffee on for her husband and help him get out of the door.
"My quiet time is from 6 to 6:30 a.m.," she says. Then the children begin to tumble out of the bed.
"Kellie has one speed," her grandmother says. "And that is slow."
Nicknamed "the princess," Kellie enjoys her status as the baby ++ of the family.
Brandon is blond and blessed with the gift of gab. He delights in recounting to anyone in the room his previous day's exploits or future plans.
Christopher is dark-haired, intense and quiet. He has a developmental disorder called asperger syndrome, which is similar to autism. It makes it difficult for him to socialize with other people, though he is an avid reader with a high IQ, his grandmother says.
Once the children are given breakfast and are off to school, Mrs. Vogel heads to her real estate office, where she works from about 9 a.m. to noon.
From noon until the children come home around 3 p.m., she is either showing properties, working the telephones at home or squeezing in housework. With three young children and a husband, there's always housework.
"There are usually about 20 loads of clothes a week," Mrs. Vogel says. If there aren't loads of clothes to wash, there are dishes to do.
Mr. Vogel pitches in, but admits that his wife handles the bulk of the daily chores.
"I say that I do my share," he says. "But she is the one who gets the 'Ma, Ma, Ma's," all the time."
Mrs. Vogel is a small woman with reddish blond hair and plenty of pep. Her effervescent personality makes her appear to be moving even when she's sitting down. Her husband, by contrast, is dark-haired with a weathered look. He exudes a calmness even as the children swirl around him.
Their home is comfortable and warm, though nothing fancy. The presence of children is evident from the bikes on the front porch to the toys strewn around the back yard.
The children take their life here for granted, calling Mrs. Vogel "Ma" and Mr. Vogel "Pop Pop." They don't ask about their parents.
"We often wonder what they are really thinking about that," Mrs. Vogel says. "But this is too much to lay on them at this age."
The children have been through enough, the Vogels say, who worry that some day the parents will try to regain custody. Those fears make them fiercely protective.
"I'll do everything, everything in my power to protect these kids," says Mrs. Vogel vehemently with her husband echoing her.
Though the Vogels sometimes fear the future, they know they are lucky when they compare themselves to many custodial grandparents.
"We are not on a fixed income," Mrs. Vogel explains.
Most grandparents struggle financially to raise their grandchildren, according to AARP's research. Thirty-nine percent have household incomes of $20,000 or less. Another 41 percent earn between $20,000 and $40,000. Only 20 percent make more than $40,000 a year.
The Vogels earn a comfortable living. They can afford to pay for help with the children and the housework. And if something should happen to both of them, another daughter has agreed to look after the children.
Despite those advantages, Mrs. Vogel still wonders when the time will come when she can stop being a full-time mother.
"There's got to be some point in your life when you become a person," she says.
One afternoon, in a rare, quiet moment before the children come home, she reflects on the unexpected twists her life has taken.
"I had a girlfriend who said, 'You are the last person on earth I thought would be raising a child again,' " she says.
But she and her husband don't regret taking the children, even though it has required a lot of sacrifices.
"We wanted to give these kids a shot," Mrs. Vogel says. "They are not lost in the system. They have a chance."