Tale of Two Mamas

It feels like I’ve had two mothers in my life, but she was the same woman. I remember the mama who polished the pipes under the sink, kept the house spotless and made sure I didn’t get any germs in my mouth. I remember the mama who drove all over town to find me a dollhouse for my sixth birthday. I remember the mama who wrapped a present carefully with a red square lollipop tied in with the bow so I could take it to a birthday party when I was seven years old. I remember the mama who taught me how to make sure my clothes matched and who took pride to sew me a little coat and dresses and the occasional Barbie doll outfit. I remember the mama who was a glowing hostess and once made a cherry pie complete with lattice crust which was the most delicious pie I’ve ever eaten, but I never saw her make one of those pies again. Within a year we ended up homeless and living in an abandoned saw mill.

While we lived at the sawmill, my mom encouraged us by making it an adventure and telling us it was like going to summer camp. She showed us how to sweep out our tents and straighten our beds and wash the camp dishes. After our chores were done, we went for “hikes” and then we took naps. Four children, eight years and younger must have been quite daunting for a young mom to keep happy. We picked wildflowers and sang songs and listened to stories. Every few hours my next oldest sister and I would run to ask mom, “Is this what summer camp is like?” We had to keep checking in because she was the only one who had ever been to camp and we want to make sure our experience was up to par.

That abandoned sawmill was a turning point between my first mama and the mom I know now. I don’t know how she did it going from her high hopes and high expectations to living in a tent and then a cabin without water and electricity. There were motel rooms and house after house and another cabin or two. Move after move, which happened every six months or a year; her furniture fell apart and was destroyed in the moves. The cedar hope chest and bookcase made out of mahogany she built herself–sometimes it felt like our family might fall apart too, but mom wouldn’t let it.

It’s hard to care about keeping things clean when you have a rough wood floor and your children have no place to play but outside in the dirt all day. It’s hard to worry about keeping things clean when you can only go to the laundromat once a week. It’s hard to keep your kids clean when you have to take them to the state park to put in a quarter to give them a shower once a week. And it’s hard to do dishes when you have to chop the wood to build a fire, then haul the water to heat up on the stove before you can wash them.

It’s hard to keep hope alive when every time you start to make friends you have to say goodbye. And it is hard to hold your head up high to relatives and people you once knew, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or you are going to get kicked out of the place you’re renting. It’s confusing to love a man who moves as often as his moods. No matter what my mom has ever done to me, I’ve seen her. I know the stuff she’s made of and I’ve taken courage from who she was then and who she is now. No matter how hard life gets, she has taught me to look to God and hold my dignity. For that I will always be grateful.

I don’t think my younger siblings remember that first mama, but I do, I have missed her for most of my life. I know the mama who was excited for me to go to school and learn to read and the mom who gave up on me getting an education. I know the mama who said she hated it when my dad belted me in anger and the mom who said if I didn’t jerk around so much he wouldn’t have to hit me with both ends of the belt at the same time. I know the mama who had a spotless kitchen and the mom who cooked in the dust over a campfire.

I’ve spent much of my life working hard to please my mom and win her love. She said she had her babysitter first and she taught me to vacuum and wash dishes when I was four. I cleaned and cooked and packed for close to forty moves in twenty years. All I wanted was for my mom to be happy and love me back. It’s the twinkle in her eye fading through the years that breaks my heart the most. I’ve tried for years to fix it, but I can’t, there’s not enough money or time in the world to fix our parents or a child. Our journeys might intersect, but in the end, we must take them alone.

I haven’t spoken as much with my mom lately–partially, because when I call, my parents seem more worried about my theology or the kind of music I listen to than what’s actually going on in my life. All I’ve ever wanted is to spend time with them, but they are always too busy even for a phone call. I guess their parents might have done the same to them, so I don’t hold it against them. In some ways religion has become a wedge in our relationship and that makes me sad because I don’t think Jesus planned it that way. But no matter what she says or does, I will never stop loving my mom.

I am sharing Peter Hollens’s version of Shenandoah. My mom used to play this on the piano while I played my flute. Oh how I miss those days! And in case you are reading this, I love you Mom!