Most people have one mother. I was fortunate enough to have four women in my life that filled that role at one time or another. The first woman in this life was Norelle. She passed in and out of my life in less than three years including pregnancy. She and my dad graduated from high schools in Detroit. Norelle was a high school athlete (women’s field hockey) and probably the source of my inner athlete. She was 20 when I was born and I know that she loved me dearly. Within a year of my birth, she became ill and far too late she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died about two months after my second birthday. However, before she died, she wrote a letter to me that I was given when I was a teenager. I read this letter now and then, looking for clues and insights about this mysterious first presence in my life. I have no verbal memory of Norelle and if there are nonverbal memories, I cannot draw them to consciousness.
My first memories are actually those formed while living with the second mother in my life. My grandma. She was my father’s mother. Prior to Norelle’s death, she had periods of hospitalization. During those times, I would stay with my grandma. And when Norelle died, I went to live with my grandma for about a year. I can remember some things about that time and I know that a very strong bond developed between my grandma and me. I have mentioned her in previous posts when discussing food, cooking, and love. However, Grandma was much more than that. She sewed and altered clothing for “pin money” as they called it back then. She could tat (lace making), crochet, knit, cross stitch, needlepoint, and embroider. She made costumes for recitals and Halloween. She made wedding gowns (Norelle’s was the first). And she taught me most of those skills. But what Grandma did best was listen. Grandma remained a powerful and influential person in my life even after I moved back in with my father and his new wife. When I was sick, because my parents worked, I would go to Grandma’s. When my parents took a vacation alone, I spent the time at Grandma’s house.
My fondest Grandma memories are of waking up (from my earliest years to teens) and crawling into bed next to Grandma where we would stare up at the ceiling and have long discussions about all sorts of things. Eventually we would get up and Grandma would make a pot of tea. We would sit and drink tea – out on the deck if it was nice or at the kitchen table if not – and continue our discussions of life, boys, school, and my favorite – Grandma’s stories from her childhood and young adulthood. Just thinking of these times brings me a sense of warmth and safety. Grandma never judged me, even when she cornered me on the deck the day after I lost my virginity and told me that she suspected this had occurred. How she knew, I will never understand. As I think about it, she also knew I was pregnant when she came to my wedding and when I confessed, she told me that she had known all along and was just waiting for me to tell her.
When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, she presented me with three volumes of scrapbook she had lovingly assembled. It was the most wonderful and wondrous gift. She had created similar volumes and given them to my father and uncle when they graduated with their doctorates but she feared that to wait might mean that I would never receive my gift. Sadly, Grandma died just over a year before I graduated with my Ph.D. I would have loved for her to be there in person; however, I know she was there in spirit as was Norelle.
Almost a year after Norelle’s death, my father married the woman I now call Mom. At 23 years of age, my mom married into a ready-made family. They married just before my third birthday. It was a difficult transition for us all and I am certain that I did not make life easy for her. There is a telling photo of me at their wedding. I am dressed in a little blue dress with fur around the collar and appear to be sitting in a chair pouting. Mom and I had our ups and downs, but she was always there for me. Dad’s work kept him busy and that left the two of us on our own. My favorite memory of childhood with my mom is laying in bed just before falling asleep and listening to my mom play the piano. Mostly I remember her playing Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen for piano (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15 (1838). To this day, when I hear this composition, I relax. Mom became a music teacher and was always involved in the church as a choir leader, pianist, organist, etc. (I should mention that my father was a Methodist minister during some of my childhood). Later in my life, she became a Chiropractor.
I think my mom would admit that she has never been a master chef nor a talented seamstress; however, she could cook and Grandma taught her to sew. Grandma would teach anyone to sew if they asked. What Mom brought to my life was not lessons in domesticity. She brought fun, companionship, music, safety, and stability. I still remember the day she told me – at the intermission of Dr. Zhivago – that she and my father were divorcing. I never really understood why no one asked me if I wanted to stay with her. I am not sure what I would have said, but the decision was not mine. I moved away from my mom at age 13 and my father remarried. Mom has been a part of my life ever since, sometimes more and sometimes less. She was present for two very pivotal moments in my life: graduation with my Ph.D. and the day I could have died (I lost half of my body’s blood due to bleeding ulcer and Ulcerative Colitis exacerbation). In fact, when I realized I needed an ambulance, it was my mother that I summoned into the bedroom rather than my husband.
My dad married for the third time when I was 13. Again, his wife assumed a read-made family. To her credit, she worked hard to establish a relationship with a teenager who was only 10 years her junior. This was no easy task. I was not that accepting of a fourth mother-figure in my life and was really pretty angry that my life had been so disrupted. I only lived with my dad and stepmother for about three and a half years. However, she has continued to teach me about being strong, autonomous, outspoken, and determined. Her dedication to family, her passions, and my father is inspiring. I believe that the fierce mother tiger within me was learned through my relationship with my stepmother. This lesson has served me well both as a mother and as a supervisor.
Anyone who knows me can now easily identify the sources of many of my traits. However, there is one more woman that continues to inspire and teach me. That is my daughter. She has had more pain and struggle in the last 12 years than many experience in a lifetime. Most significantly, my two and a half year old grandson, her son, has Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and Wegner’s Granulomatosis. He must undergo monthly infusions, weekly injections, and other medications. He has multiple medical appointments at the children’s hospital 2 hours away from their home. Earlier in his life, he frequently awakened screaming in pain leaving my daughter in a constant state of exhaustion. Yet through all of this, she has been strong and has even grown. To her credit and despite his illnesses, our grandson is cheerful, bright, energetic, and indescribably loving. My daughter takes each day as it comes and brings all that she can to her marriage, her friendships, her family, and her life.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I think back on all of these women and feel blessed that they have all touched my life.