Sunday, May 11, 2008

Remembering My Three Mothers on Mother's Day

I just received a call from my oldest daughter wishing me Happy Mother's Day. She's 43. The youngest is 33 and I know she will call soon. They both tell me that I am their hero. I don't know why. Motherhood! What did I know about being a mother? I flew by the seat of my pants the whole time they were young.

I was a single mom when I wasn't supporting a husband along with my kids and myself. I made up the rules as we went along.

My memories of my mother were scarce. My first recollection was at the Quonset hut where we lived when I was about 2 or 3 and my father was still in the Army. I remember one instance telling her I needed a clothes hanger with which to spank my doll. She asked me how I would like it if she spanked me. I wouldn't, I said. "Your baby doll wouldn't like it either," she said. I don't remember any time she ever spanked me.

My next recollection was visiting her in the back bedroom of my grandmother's house in Los Angeles where we were living at the time. I was only allowed short visits because she was very weak and ill with cancer. The morning my grandfather took me to church without my grandmother, I knew I would never see my mother again. She was gone by the time we got home. I was five years old.

For the next three years I was raised by my grandparents while my father went to San Francisco because he couldn't to face the loss of his beloved wife. I used to have a reoccurring nightmare about crossing our street, crawling because I was too weak to walk, and there was a car bearing on me and I felt so heavy I could barely move, terrified that the car would run me down. I always awoke before that happened.

My grandmother was everything a mother could be. She was loving and always there for me. She listened and gave practical advice. She helped me with school work and taught me penmanship. Any good mothering skills I learned came from her. She baked wonderful breads and pies, sewed my clothes and tried to teach me to do both. Of course I wasn't interested in cooking or sewing, but I learned the basics. My grandfather was a gentle man, but very quiet. He hardly ever spoke to me, but I knew he loved me.

I did read, though. Constantly. I'd read during classes, in the afternoons after school, in the evenings in front of the fireplace (grandpa said I would ruin my eyes), at night under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep. It became my greatest escape. With my best and only girlfriend, Vida, who lived across the street with her grandmother and had beautiful corkscrew curls and looked like a doll, we would act out some of the stories. Vida's mother died also. When her father remarried, she refused to live with them. Hated her stepmother. Her grandmother was a widow and Vida was her whole world.

When I turned eight, my father returned with a new wife and a new mother for me. She tried hard to be a good mother. She had lost her mother when she was same age as I was when I lost mine. She understood what it was like to have a substitute. The thing was, I knew my father only married her so I could have a mother. They fought often, but stayed together until I was grown and left home.

I did not plan to have children. I was going to be a writer. I planned to move to Paris and study at the Sorbonne and ride around Europe in a motorcyle with a side car which would carry my typewriter and papers. Instead I fell in love - more than once - and had three wonderful children by three unlikely husbands. Even during the bad times when it was me and the kids against the world, they learned how important it was to stick together and protect each other. Now they call me hero, but I'm not. I love them for who they are and they know they could come to me with anything and I will understand and help in any way I can. I think that's what being a mother is for.