Preface – In my 54+ years I have been more than fortunate to be surrounded by good women. My Granny Roberts was a pillar of stability in my early years when all around seemed shaky. I observed my Aunt Virginia as she raised two children alone and stayed faithful to family. My sister – the most giving person in my life – constantly reminds me of charity. Good women all. But two women, more than any others, have stamped my heart and shaped my life. One I barely knew; one I’ve known for almost 50 years. One gave me life; one gave me direction. Both are a part of my very fiber. Below are tiny snapshots of my two mamas.
1964 – Mama took the spray bottle and misted my hair until it dripped. Gently she pulled the comb through my blond tangles, trying not to tug too harshly.
“Such fine, golden hair, Sheila. So pretty.”
Mother’s hand paused. I looked up into her face to find her staring blankly out the jalousie window. She would do this often; just stop and stare. Sometimes she would stare only a few minutes. There were other times, however, where she’d stare the rest of the day.
Mother blinked and I saw tears fall silently down her face.
“Mommy, are you okay?”
Mother dropped the comb and walked out of the room. A few moments later she returned with a brand new coloring book and a new box of crayons.
“Sheila, I need to go for a walk. I want you to sit here and be a good girl and color Mommy a pretty picture. Granny Roberts will be here soon to take care of you. Stay right here and color ’til she comes.”
So I colored. My wet hair dripped down upon the paper, leaving droplets that smeared. I wasn’t scared or nervous; I knew Granny would come.
I have no idea how much time passed – 5 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour? But before I’d had time to tire of my crayons, Granny rushed in.
“Sheila, where’s your mother?”
“She went for a walk.”
And that’s the end of the memory, at least that snapshot. Years on I learned that Mother had called my Granny, telling her that something was wrong and that she should come immediately. Mother was found hours later, wandering through an orange grove a few miles from our home; she couldn’t recall how she’d gotten there or why she’d simply left, but one of her first questions was, “Is Sheila okay?” As she combed my hair that day, something warned her to take care of me; something warned her that she needed help. I knew she loved me.
About a year later, my mother took her life. Manic depression, schizophrenia, bi-polarity; mental illness goes by many names; and in the 1960s treatment was questionable at best. I have enough good memories to know that she was kind and beautiful and that being a mother was, to her, the highest calling. I also have enough memories of my mother to know that she was scared and confused and wanted nothing more than to be better.
Some say I laugh like my mother and, based on photos, I know that we have the exact same legs. I recognize that I have a tendency towards depression and that my moods can at times swing in huge arcs. But more than anything, a yellowed paper that I’ve kept for years is what truly reminds me that this woman is a part of who I am.
Mother wrote poetry. I’ve heard from several family members that she loved to write and would spend hours over a manuscript. While our styles are very different, I can’t help but think her love of writing is intertwined in my DNA. Below is a poem Mother wrote just a year before her death:
“My Dream” by Jackie Gunter Roberts, 1965
Many years ago, when I was very small,
I dreamed I was a mother, four little ones in all.
Four funny clowns – as cute as could be,
Two boys for their daddy – two girls for me.
I grew to be a young lady sooner than expected –
Met a handsome fellow – he’d make a good dad, I soon suspected.
Next I was living in a little white house that this guy built just for me;
My dream was beginning to happen on schedule was plain to see.
First came a boy to add to our love, A replica of his daddy – sent straight from above.
When this little fellow was still very small,
The stork came again to pay us a call.
Another sweet boy, so happy and gay,
Moved into our house, for my dream went that way.
Now, here’s where I must confess –
At the time it was plain to see –
Two bustling little boys,
Made family enough for me.
But long ago I had dreamed a dream,
And it had included four.
So just a short time later,
The stork came again to our door.
This time a little girl, made of candy and lace,
Moved into our home to take her place.
Two boys and one girl –
That adds up to three –
But for my dream to be complete four there would have to be.
Then along in July, after eleven years of marriage,
We again had the use of our old baby carriage.
Another little girl with a built-in smile,
To all of her family, a real wonder of a child.
Now what could be nicer than a family of six?
There’s fun, work and tears, but somehow they mix.
And it’s all here to see – this dream that I dreamed.
So long, long ago turned out just right for me.
What went wrong? How did my mother go from thinking that everything had, in her words, “turned out just right” to being so desperate that life wasn’t worth pursuing? I don’t know, but I am sure of this. My mother loved me as much as she was able and it’s that memory to which I cling.
1983 – The first few years of teaching are always hard, and my first few years were no exception. I headed into the classroom filled with dreams of grandeur; I wasn’t going to be just any teacher. I was going to be the best teacher. But new things I wanted to try were met with doubt and “old school” reigned.
“This is the way it’s always been done. Settle down.”
I became discouraged. I knew I needed to know more; I knew that teaching a child to read and write and think mathematically was a science. Handing out copious amounts of worksheets and telling students to “hush” weren’t cutting edge. I began to think that all I was doing was babysitting, and that since any one could babysit perhaps I should look for another vocation, something that would make a difference.
I sought out my mom, an educator of educators. We went to lunch together and I poured out my heart.
I talked. She listened. I talked some more.
Mom shared with me about being a life-long learner. She encouraged me to keep learning. We talked about graduate school.
“Stick it out. Think about graduate school. Don’t give up.”
I stuck it out. I applied for graduate school. And today I remain an educator because of my mom. Her example of serving children, all children, through the public school system is an example that has steered me through my own profession. Now that my time in education is going on 30+ years, we continue to discuss policy and trends and sound educational practices. Not only is she my mom, a mom who has loved me and encouraged me; she’s a mentor and a peer. So much of who I am is because of her love, support, and guidance. Since I was 8 years old she’s been a part of my life and I am so grateful to be her daughter.
This weekend I celebrate my two mamas, two very different people indeed, and I am once again reminded of how tragedy and joy are always intertwined. Happy Mothers Day!