My mom has been on my mind a lot lately. I lost her in 2007 from a stroke. She worked most of her life, and loved working despite the struggle of raising three kids at the same time. She kept house and cooked after coming home from work, often finishing the dishes after all of us had gone to bed. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t help her very much. I gave up offering because she said it was easier for her to do it herself. I think, now, as I reflect back, that she was trying to make my life easier than she had growing up.
In my memoir, DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS, I tell about when Mom reveals to me that she learned to drive when she was pregnant with me. She managed with my two brothers, then four and five, without a car. Back in those days, she often rode the bus like in the picture above. She was eighteen and on her way to her first job in downtown Detroit to sell ladies shoes in a department store, a job she was proud to have because of the independence it gave her. I learned another secret about my birth that day, but I’ll let you read that in the book when it’s released. (No date yet.)
There is still much I don’t know about my mom. She was good at keeping secrets. I plan on pumping every last memory from my Aunt Dee as soon as we can get together. I do know that Mom was a strong woman, from a line of strong women, and that I continue in the spirit of that lineage. At the same time, she was fragile–a fact she worked hard to disguise.
Perhaps Mom was vulnerable to any criticism because she never knew her biological father. She was born from love, but out of wedlock in the Milwaukee Home for Unwed Mothers, a place that I think was connected to the Salvation Army. I didn’t learn that piece of family history until I was twenty-four when a drunk driver hit the car Mom was driving head-on, hospitalizing her and killing her mother. Even after I learned the truth, she wouldn’t talk about her her origins unless I greased the wheels of her memory with a few glasses of wine.
In addition to her unresolved youth, Mom married two complex men–first my father for twenty-four years and then another brilliant but troubled German for thirty-seven years. Both men drank what they called socially, but was much more than would now be acceptable. Despite the difficulties it brought her, she resigned herself to her life because she felt it was something over which she had no control.
She was a beautiful, red-haired woman who worked hard every day of her life and was at her best in her role as caretaker, balancing everyone’s needs. She sometimes struggled with too many balls in the air in her attempt to please everyone, but she managed to charm and smile her way through the troubled times. When asked how she coped, she would say, “It doesn’t help anyone if I just mope around. So I make lemonade out of lemons. That’s just life.”
In her later years, she could say almost anything and make me laugh. Always kind and compassionate, she took the time to listen to any troubled soul that passed through her life, lending encouragement and words of wisdom. I still hear her voice whispered out of the ether, guiding me everyday, about all things big and small. I honor all the gifts she gave me, but mostly the way she raised me to be fiercely independent.
Many times, we’d be visiting my grandparents for a holiday or summer visit and I would hear Grandma question Mom’s leniency with me. Mom would say, “I’m giving her her head,” as if I was a horse that was allowed to run free. As a latchkey kid, I did roam free, often coming home at night only to eat and sleep, preparing to take off for a new adventure the following day. No wonder I’ve loved being with horses all my life. Their spirit matches my own.
When Mom was busy working or entertaining with Dad, I spent my time with my imaginary horses. They kept me company, running with me in open fields and along edges of Michigan lakes or in the Arizona desert.
My horses are not imaginary any more. Although I’ve lost all of my family, I have my three four-legged beauties that live in the field just beyond my front porch. Just looking out at them brings me joy like my mother did when she smiled and laughed. It is the small things in life that make it truly rich.
What brings you joy on an ordinary day?
Do you have a love of horses? Or a childhood memory triggered by a picture?
Please leave a comment and I will answer. I love a good conversation. I learned that from my mother, too.