Mama

I was born on Valentine’s Day
My mama’s pride and joy.
She was a child of fourteen years;
I was her real-life toy.
She could have given me away,
And gone back to her childhood days.
But we stuck together, and raised each other,
My mama and me, her Valentine’s girl.*

*Disclaimer: I’m telling you my story, not to shame my mother or even create anger for my experiences as a child. Much of what I tell you is spoken as fact now. Years ago, I might have wanted you to pity me and be angry at my mama. That’s why my story is just now being told; God put the desire on hold until I could tell it without malice. I share the childhood occurrences to give you a starting point in my story. My desire is for you to understand the beginning, experience the life-change brought about by my understanding of God’s love for me, and walk with me as I struggled to break the bondage of a past that held me for way too long. That said, let’s begin.

My mother was as physically beautiful as any woman I ever knew. All the years of her life, men flirted with her and desired her, a weakness in them that she took notice of and exploited as often as she felt it might benefit her. I don’t mean that to sound harsh—it’s simply how it was. So, when she told my father she was 17, he believed her, because he wanted her. Truth be told, she looked 17. And then there she was, having his baby. She was ill with pneumonia, unmarried, in labor, and he was nowhere to be seen. Of course, she was not 17; she was 14. And in 1954, when folks did not approve of such things, his family would not accept her or her baby. I have no doubt that she loved me with all the love she knew how to give, but my birth changed her life dramatically and forever

Mama was the middle child, twelve years younger than her brother and twelve years older than her little sister. She was practically raised by her grandmother and her brother. Their mother, Christine, was a beautiful woman with a restless spirit. She never married, had at least three lovers, and she and her children lived in poverty. Mama used to say that she was thankful for the Salvation Army, because that was the only way they ever had special food on the holidays. Most of her clothes were thrift store purchases or from the clothes closets of various charitable organizations.

Not only was mama’s family financially poor, but she never felt like she had her mother’s love—a sadness and loneliness she carried with her all of her life. She tells of times she would cling to her mother and cry, asking her to say she loved her the most. I don’t think that ever happened. She also never knew her father. Once, as an adult, she sought to see him and was soundly rejected. Pain upon pain. Her brother did love her and took care of her even in her married years, and she adored him.

In our youth, unfortunately, while we children all heard our mother say she loved us, she didn’t know an emotional way to express that. She saw that we never wanted for food or clothing or other material things, but she was physically distant. She didn’t like being hugged or kissed, unless she was under the influence of alcohol (again, just a fact). In her later years, she tried to make up for all the lost hugs with long, drawn out embraces when we visited. By that time, many of us—myself included—were a bit jaded and unable to “feel” the love. Even today, when I browse through pictures of us siblings with mama, she may have her arms around us, but our arms are usually down by our sides and our body language shows our unease. I’m sure she noticed, but at the time we just couldn’t find a way to break through the wall that had been erected over all those years. It’s a shame, really. She wanted love, but couldn’t accept love (fear of abandonment, maybe?), and then when she wanted to begin showing love, the folks she had shunned physically and emotionally for all those years struggled to respond appropriately.

Why, you ask, since we knew all this did we have such a hard time forgiving and responding to our mother? Because we were children, and we needed the same things she did, and we didn’t receive them. So, basically, our emotional response patterns were also damaged. It took most of us well into our adult years to work through that pain and understand our mother. Patterns were set by that time, and difficult to break.  

I won’t begin to speak for my siblings—their story is their own to share or not. For myself, l can say that after several years of therapy, having children of my own, growing in my walk with God, and just plain practicing forgiveness (often on a daily basis), I did get to the point where I could hug my mama and let her hug me as long as she wanted. Learning about life, emotions, and relationships enabled me to be near her and not feel like a stranger. I did love my mother, but the mother in my head was not the mama I got. And at a point of understanding I accepted that fact and just loved her for what she was. I read a lot from folks who say their mother is their best friend. I cannot say that ever happened for me, but it does not change the fact that I loved her.

From the beginning, my childhood was “eventful.” Mama did not make wise decisions, and many of her behaviors placed her children in the middle of dangerous situations. She started drinking at a young age, because it was the only way she could stomach her life choices. She was exploited, used, and abused by the men she knew. I’ve often wondered if there was ever truly a man in her life that just simply loved her. Honestly, I believe that she never felt loved to the depth that she sought. She looked everywhere for love and acceptance, which she seemed to think a man could give her. As a result, there were lots of men in my mother’s life—six marriages, mild flirtations, outright affairs. Ultimately, the majority of her life was spent looking for what she could not find, hiding her desperation behind a bottle of anything she could get her hands on that contained any amount of alcohol.

Even after she found peace with God and accepted Christ as her Savior, she still struggled. The desire for alcohol seemed to dissipate but was soon replaced with prescription drugs. For years, she abused the medications doctors prescribed, seeing different doctors to stockpile heavy-duty medicines (this was before everything became computerized). She also spent a lot of time going to the hospital for one ailment or another, to the degree that the ambulance service in her area almost did not believe her anymore. They always showed up, but eventually they showed up with attitude.

Mama had this terrible need to be the center of attention, to the opposite effect that it nearly drove her family away from her. Even as children, she did not want to share us with anyone else. If we wanted to spend the night with a friend or spend time with her brother’s family, she reacted as if we had just told her we hated her. The guilt trips were awful. We might get to do the thing we asked, but not without feeling terrible.

As dating teens, we would hang out in the living room with our dates—and our mother. She sat in the chair across from us–often under the influence of alcohol–and inserted herself into our evening. As adults, when one of us would visit with her (without our spouses, at her request), she would tell us to keep our visit a secret from the other siblings. She would share confidences for the purpose of keeping us on edge with each other. Mama wanted all of us to love just her, and though I don’t think she really understood what she was doing, it drove a wedge between the siblings. Even on holidays, when we would all gather at her house, there was a bit of strain between us.

To be continued…

*Poem (c)Claudette Wood 1985

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