When I was 5 years old and my sister was 2, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27. My father left her one week after she got out of the hospital, forcing us to move back in with my grandparents, where my sister and I shared a room with my mother and my aunt. My two uncles slept in the room down the hall.
We were one big happy family, eating every meal together and sharing ONE bathroom!
My father joined the Navy, and he and my mom tried to work things out for a couple of years. Then one day, she realized that his alcoholism and gambling problems were going to plague him for the rest of his life, and she decided that kind of life was not for her and her children. So when I was 8, my parents finally divorced.
My mother became my father too. In fact, some years on Father’s Day I’ve even sent my mom a card. She never expected her life to turn out the way it did when she married her high school sweetheart, but she made the best of it. She kicked cancer, and then threw herself into the lives of her children. She was the ultimate PTA mom, volunteering for every school event, making our Halloween costumes herself, leading our Brownie and Girl Scout troops.
As a kid, I thought everyone had a mom like that. It wasn’t until I grew up and moved away that I realized just how special my mom really is. I have lived a life that most people would think was fraught with obstacles, but in reality, my sister and I are who we are today because of the way my mom rose above the challenges life threw at her. We might not have had as much as the kids around us, but we had everything we needed. Today we are both successful in our careers, and have turned out to be daughters my mom is proud to call her own.
I have been surrounded by strong women my whole life. When we moved back into my grandparents’ house, my grandmother still had two teenagers in the house. Essentially, my sister and I became her children too, following strict rules like the rest of the kids. Under her direction, we finished everything on our plates and drank all of our milk. We turned the lights out when we left the room. We NEVER stood gazing into the refrigerator with the door open, or let the heat flow out the open front door in the winter time. (“Your grandfather only works for the electric company – he doesn’t own it!”) And of course, we never had nothing that would “spoil our dinner.”
Ironically, when we eventually moved out when I was in junior high, my grandmother stopped being a mother figure and became a “Grandma” again, spoiling us with candy and snacks any time we visited. (It was no longer a dinner SHE cooked that would be spoiled!)
Years later, when my grandfather was diagnosed with Emphysema, my grandmother stepped into the tough role of caregiver for her ailing husband. He was not an easy patient, but my grandmother rarely – if ever – complained. She took on more than most of us can imagine, dealing with most of the household needs herself. We all admired her more than she probably realizes. She was his rock, and in many ways she is our rock still.
As with many children of so-called “broken homes,” my sister and I were never as close to my dad’s side of the family. After the divorce, they became my mom’s ex-in-laws, and since my dad had skipped town, an important family link was broken.
When we did see my dad’s mom, which was quite a bit when we were really little, she was thrilled to see us. My sister and I got away with things there that my other grandmother and my mother would never have allowed! When we needed to earn our baking badges for Girl Scouts, my grandma was happy to oblige. We absolutely trashed her kitchen with flour, and then the three of us went out to have lemonade on the porch while my poor grandfather cleaned everything up.
She was a true matriarch, and everyone bowed down to her direction. From what I understand, by the time I knew her, she had mellowed quite a bit from the domineering woman she had been in her youth. But I remember very clearly that what she said was gospel, and the family dutifully followed her direction on everything.
As I got older, we visited them less and less. I went off to college, and while I wrote them lots of letters, I never seemed to make it over to see them as much as I should have when I came home.
Three years ago my dad’s mom died of Alzheimer’s disease. The last time I saw her, she was lying in a hospital bed with a bruised up face, because she had gotten out of the house for a walk by herself and had fallen. She thought I was a friend of my aunt’s.
I was 27 when she died, and until then I had all four of my grandparents. I was lucky.
Recently I have been in contact with one of my grandmother’s nieces, who has been sending me old photographs of the homestead in Oklahoma. Out of the blue she called one of my aunts shortly after my grandmother’s death, and I believe my grandma had a hand in putting us all in touch with each other again. These early photographs of her life that we never knew existed have become my link with a woman I wish I had gotten to know better, before it was too late.
I live far from my family now, and even though we talk on the phone often, I miss all the birthday parties, most holidays, and Mother’s Day every year. My sister is planning her wedding this year, and I have missed out on most of the planning.
Since I am not a mother, to me Mother’s Day means honoring the mothers in my family, and letting them know how much their love and guidance has meant to me over the years. I have had the courage to stand up for what I believe in because my mother raised me to be confident in my decisions.
My mother and grandmothers have meant the world to me, and so this Mother’s Day, I honor them.