People are what their mothers make them–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Her name was Eloise, and I often wonder who she was, this woman who gave birth to me. She died in 1986, and I never learned anything about her past. What little she shared about where she was born and her maiden name has proven to be lies. I guess she simply did not want her children to know anything about her life before she became a mother. To me, she was a puzzle without all the pieces, so I never fully understood her.
I wanted so much to hear her story, for it is part of my story, but she took her secrets to the grave. I know that she was raised by an aunt, because her mother died when she was very young. From what little relationship we had after she returned from living apart from us for nearly four years, I came to understand that the power of a mother’s love is so great that the absence of it is just as destructive as the presence of it is constructive. If the quote above is true, then how do I determine who or what my mother made me to be?
I know that she liked crossword puzzles and bourbon, for she sat hour after hour each day drinking from pint bottles of bourbon (with just about an inch of water in the top as chaser!) and completing crossword puzzles in ink, and she never made a mistake. So, she had to have been very smart, but she never finished high school. She married when she was still a teenager, having met my father through his mother whom she worked with in some menial job.
I do not know what year they married, where they married, or when they got divorced. I only remember seeing my parents together once in my life, and that was at my sister’s funeral and they never spoke a word to each other, not even to comfort each other. How two people could create life together and not share their grief at the loss of their child still confounds me.
What I did discover early in my life was that she did not want to hear about problems in any shape or form. Whenever we tried to take a problem to her for her help, she would say, “Take a bath.” That was always her answer, no matter what the problem, so I stopped disturbing her with my problems. When I was experienced domestic violence as a teenager, I never even considered telling her. In 2008, when I received my colon cancer diagnosis, I looked upward and said in despair, “Mama, I have colon cancer!” Then, I laughed and said, “I know, ‘Take a bath!'”
It has taken years of counseling, but I have come to understand that she did the best that she could do. She must have had some kind of childhood trauma that made it impossible for her to live in this world sober. But, to her credit, she worked every day, never missing a night at work until after my sister died, and then she came completely apart, and she never worked again. From her I learned that you have to work for what you get in this world, and that you always give employers eight hours work for eight hours pay. She took pride in being good at her job, and that stayed with me, maybe because it was a part of her that I could share.
She cooked only one day a week, and that was on Sundays, and she cooked the same meal every Sunday. To this day, you can give me a sandwich for dinner and I am a happy person. I cannot cook well, but my children never starved, although both of my daughters are caterers and they do not eat frozen food, supposedly because they ate a lot as the children of a working mother.
I used to wish for a mother like the ones I read about in my beloved books or saw on television, but Eloise was not that kind of mother. She was beautiful, with the prettiest black straight hair that I loved to brush. She would allow me to “scratch her head,” which meant that she would sit on the floor between my legs, and I would take a comb and get rid of her dandruff. That is the only time I was close enough to feel her heart beat, and I loved to have her close enough to touch her, but I did not like the chore. Even up close, she never talked to me; she was silent as though she could not speak.
Amazingly, she had started when I was in my early thirties sending me cards for my birthday or Christmas, and in them she would write, “To my darling daughter, Gina. Love, Mama. ” I was stunned the first time I saw it, and thought I would never stop crying. I needed to see those words so badly. As a teenager, I had remained in an abusive relationship because after every beating, he would say he loved me, and I had never heard those words from either parents or anyone else. But after those cards started coming with words of love, I became a new person, someone who knew that I had value and worth, because my mother loved me.
It is hard to see your worth when parents fail to let you know you are loved, because we expect to hear it, especially from our mothers. Please tell your daughters that you love them, so the first time they hear it will not be from someone who may try to hurt them someday. Give them a sense of their value and worth early in their lives.
She died a slow death, never able to stop drinking the alcohol that was killing her. The doctors told her she could not drink any alcohol, as she progressed from bourbon to wine to beer, and she was on wine coolers when she died of cirrhosis of the liver. When I got the call that she was dying, I rushed down the highway, sometimes at 100 miles per hour, determined not to allow her to die alone.
But, when I arrived at the hospital, she was in a coma. I had already told them not to take any actions to revive her, for her body had taken enough trauma. As it became night, the nurses told me to go home, because she could stay in that state for days. But, I was not leaving her! I started to pray, “Lord, if you are going to take her home, then do it soon. Don’t let her suffer, please!” I was still angry with her for not stopping the drinking, so I was not really talking to her. To me, she had committed suicide; it had just taken nearly 30 years for the poison to finally work. But, the doctor told me that alcoholism was a disease, and that she was not trying to kill herself, but just cope in a world too foreign for her.
So, I stayed in her room by her bed, and around midnight, I woke up to a different sound. I walked over and looked at her, and I saw the spirit as it was leaving her body. All of a sudden, I felt that I needed to say so much to her. I said, “Mama, thank you for all that you did for us. Thank you for working every day to provide for us. I know that you did your best. I don’t know what caused you so much pain, but I love you. Thank you for loving us as much as you could.”
I don’t know if she heard me, but I pray she did. What was more amazing was that the smart, beautiful black woman whom I had only seen in a church once at my sister’s funeral, started saying, “Pass me not, O gentle savior,” and “Take my hand, Precious Lord.” In my mother’s last breaths, she sought the One whom she had loved at one time in her life before whatever had happened to change her. Two of my friends sung those two songs for me at the funeral.
I am at peace, because I believe that she found peace somewhere toward the end, returning to her first love, the Father in Heaven who loved her. I believe that He accepted her into His arms, for Zechariah 1:3 states, “ Therefore, say to the people, ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.’”
Yes, I am who my mother made me to be. I do not drink alcohol at all, and only take pain killers when I just cannot function without them for my back. I love word puzzles of all kinds, and I spend a fortune every year on the big Variety puzzle books. My daughter says that even my relaxation is hard work. Because Eloise did not talk to us or share her love for us as children, I never cease to tell my children and grandchildren that I love them and I am proud of them. Sometimes I think they are embarrassed around their friends when I am being all warm and fuzzy, giving BIG hugs.
I send them cards or texts to remind them that God loves them even more than I do, even the ones that don’t have a personal relationship with Him. My children know my stories, good and bad. Unlike with my mother, they know my favorite food, my favorite music, and as much of my history as I know. I work hard at whatever I do, seeking to be the best, no matter what it takes. After all, I am Eloise’s daughter!
Emerson had it right, meaning that the power of a mother’s love, or the absence of it, shapes us and molds us, for better or for worse. Maybe it is too much to expect of one human being! Yes, believe it or not, mothers are human, too. They are seen as larger-than-life figures who have all the answers, and so the world places the weight of their children’s successes or failures on their mothers. Women tend to take responsibility for their children’s failures, but often not for their successes. I think that neither of my parents were meant to be parents, but, my mother, at least, did the best she could as a black, poorly-educated, single woman raising two girls alone in the South during segregation, trying just to get through each day. Thanks, Mama!