A heartwarming Mother's Day tale

Edith Casey was nudging 60 and had raised six children of her own when little Josh Jenkins came into her life. Now, Adelaide's towering forward can't imagine where he'd be without the woman he calls Grandma, who for as long as he and his siblings can remember has been their mother.

''In the nicest possible way, she's probably the toughest old lady you could ever come across,'' Jenkins says. ''It's one of the main reasons I'm proud of what I do - because I can tell she gets so much joy from it.''

Now 81, Edith admits she cried when the Crows lost to Melbourne last weekend. Recalling the array of flowers Josh sent when she was in hospital after a knee replacement last year, she tuts at the thought of what will arrive for Mother's Day on Sunday. ''They're the things that make you realise it was all worth it.''

She recounts this unconventionally beautiful family story with the country simplicity of someone who couldn't bear to think of children missing out, when she knew she had more to give. Her kids had grown up and left home, she and late husband George had downsized from dairy farm to hobby farm near Swan Hill, but the mundanity of gardening and housework soon got to her.

Edith went to Mallee Family Care about long-term fostering, and came home with two-year-old Josh and his eight-month-old sister Jenna. There were familiar elements to their parents' struggles - tender years, immaturity, alcohol, unrest. Another boy was born, Jordan, and when Josh was four-and-a-half he came to live with them.

''Along came number three, Human Services took it to court and they were put in my hands for good,'' Edith says.

George passed away when Josh was in Year 7, and leaving Edith a near-70-year-old sole parent. She cherishes the support of her own children. ''They took to these three like anything, even though they were all married with their own kids by then. If I didn't have that I don't think I could have done it on my own.''

On the first day that two-year-old Josh spent with the Caseys, he made himself at home by swapping the front and back doormats. ''He didn't like the feel of the one at the front door,'' Edith says. ''He was a very stubborn child, I'll tell you.''

He'd come home from school, ask what was for dinner, and if he didn't like the menu it was off to his room where he'd lock himself away picking elaborate football and basketball teams. ''I'm still finding sheets of paper in his drawers full of fake teams he'd make up, pages and pages of them.''

Discipline was the bedrock of the house (''too right,'' Edith says), but also abundant love. ''They used to sit on my knee at night,'' Edith says. ''I'd have all three sitting on my knee sometimes.''

Josh and Jenna excelled at basketball and netball respectively, and he says they never missed a thing under Grandma's care. Still, he remembers the embarrassment of realising you're different, the hurtful things kids say, the feelings of isolation while on representative basketball trips, where his peers had their parents cheering on the sidelines but Edith was back home looking after the other children.

''She did her best, she was always on top of everything we did,'' Josh says. ''But small things could be a bit difficult - father-son matches at junior footy, that sort of stuff. Awkward's probably the word.''

Edith's dander rises when she recalls what Josh had to contend with - kids ''slinging off'', hostility from parents. '' 'Fancy a foster kid getting in the team', that sort of thing. We had awful stuff."

He admits he had periods where he was angry at the world, frustrated, didn't use his intellect to its fullest. ''I definitely had my moments, let little things distract me and frustrate me. It's a regret I hold to this day that I didn't do well enough at school.''

Sport was an outlet that gave him self-esteem. Edith remembers the Christmas when Josh was four or five, and her sons Owen and Adrian taught him to kick a football. ''I've got a big garden, lots of lawn. They spent the afternoon and half the evening kicking this jolly football around. He's been carrying a football or a basketball ever since."

Josh spent time in Townsville in his late teens, enrolling in a school through his basketball and staying with an uncle, aunty and cousins, attracted to being in a normal family environment. ''I moved into a situation I hadn't had before.''

Basketball took him to Mt Gambier but wasn't the springboard he'd hoped for; on a whim he returned to Swan Hill and his old footy team. He remembers the speed of his transition from Lake Boga onto Essendon's rookie list as ''outrageous''.

His state screening came on the day of the Collingwood-St Kilda grand final replay in 2010, when many clubs didn't know who he was, and everyone was in a hurry to get to the MCG. Eventually he sat down with Bombers recruiter Adrian Dodoro and told his story. ''I told him about Grandma, the way I was brought up.''

Dodoro was impressed, as was an Adelaide contingent during trade week a year later, when they saw Jenkins as a potential future replacement for Ben Rutten at full-back. ''He had work ethic, professionalism, a good degree of self-confidence,'' recruiter Hamish Ogilvie recalls. ''He just wanted a chance to be on a list.''

Ogilvie calls him highly intelligent and a deep thinker, who as a late-blooming footballer has only scratched the surface of his potential. He sees many indigenous boys who've been raised by their grandmothers, but concedes his upbringing is uncommon. ''You interview plenty of kids with different and interesting family backgrounds, but not too many the same as his.''

Jenkins has kicked 13 goals from five games this season, and this week signed a two-year contract extension. He was devastated to be cut by Essendon, is eternally grateful to the Crows for the second chance, and thinks himself ''very lucky to forge this career''.

He saw a bit of his father when he was younger, but not for a while. He didn't speak to his mother for a time in his teens, but they communicate now and she comes to a couple of games in Melbourne each year. Edith has always believed that Josh, Jenna and Jordan need to know their roots.

Jenna is a nanny and beautician living in Ocean Grove, Jordan is in the army. Josh says he's always known how much she's done for them, even if at times he hasn't shown how much it means to him. Edith demurs. ''Oh yes, he tells me,'' she says, recalling the six months she spent in hospital last year after complications from the knee surgery, when Josh flew to Melbourne, hired a car, walked onto the ward in Bendigo and warmed her heart before returning to his footballer's life in Adelaide.

Josh reckons she knows more about him than he does, doesn't miss a thing in the papers or on the radio, devours the magazines and other paraphernalia the Crows send her. ''The small things really get her through.''

Edith Casey's first child was adopted. She'd been married three months, saw a little person in peril, and George came home one night to find a baby in a pram next to their bed. She says she ''got over the challenge'' of having five of her own in five years, and is grateful a new challenge came along. ''We're just a normal family,'' Edith says.

Josh knows ''there were a few knockers and naysayers about when she was bringing us up. But she performed all those duties, sacrificed a lot, did everything for us.'' He thinks his Grandma deserves all the rewards that come her way.

The story A heartwarming Mother's Day tale first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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