(In the photo my mom and I are looking at one of Tim’s paintings of my daughter Temma, titled “Bower” when it was hanging in the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2014’s Art Prize exhibition.)
I had the opportunity to spend some extended time with my mom a couple weekends ago when I was in Michigan attending the Faith and Writing Conference at Calvin College. My younger brother Doug, and I had dinner with Mom at the retirement home where she is living and then went back up to her room with her and sat and talked for awhile. I asked her some questions about her history and she got to reminiscing and sharing some about her inheritance, helping me to realize my own.
“You must have had a difficult childhood,” I said to mom as we sat down in her small living room. (I had heard her talk a little about her story, but I wanted to hear more.) One small bedroom and small bathroom makes up Mom’s entire living space these days. Upon moving into the space when Dad was transferred to another room in the Memory Care division of the campus, Mom wondered that all of a life lived with such very hard work came down to this, these two rooms now.
“Did you say that you had a difficult childhood?” Mom asks me. “No, I meant you, Mom,” as she and I and Doug sat down together. I said it as a way to help her to open up about her life some more. “Oh, it wasn’t so bad,” Mom said, even as a look of pain crossed over her face.
“Doug and I were trying to remember if you went to live with an aunt in the town after your mom died,” I continued, trying to get her to pull back the curtain a bit more.
“I was just two years old when my mom died,” she said.
“My dad sent me to live with my Aunt Cora in the small town, away from the farm. I was never told much about why. I suppose that my Dad felt he could not take care of me, along with my older siblings, two sisters and one brother. You know, my mom had two babies that died, one between brother Mike and me, that one was a boy who they named Gerald and so when I came along they named me Geraldine after him. The other baby that died came after me. Her name was Lena. Although my mom died from cancer, I think that heartbreak also had something to do with it,” mom said.
“So I went to live with Aunt Clara until I was three and went back to live with my Dad for awhile. But then I went back to live with Aunt Clara until I was six years old. I don’t know why I was sent back, she says with a shrug of her shoulders, or why then I went back to live with Dad and Mike. No one told me anything. My sisters had moved out by then so maybe he needed me to come and take care of him and the house. He was a hard man to get along with. “Don’t talk to anyone outside of family,” he would say. He didn’t want me going back to school when I finished eighth grade. “You don’t need to learn any more of that stuff,” he said to me. He didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone. So I never went back to school.”
“I slaved for him and my brother. When I wanted to get married, he said, “Marry that man and I will disown you.” I went ahead and did it. I received no inheritance from him. Your dad and I moved away from that town. We left. Moved to Grand Rapids. Bought a trailer and lived in it until after your sister Darlene was born.”
Mom always worked hard, cleaning other women’s homes. Occasionally I would hear her say, “I wish I knew how to type.” I can remember her crying once when a bill had come in the mail for her children’s (now five) education at the Christian School. How would they make it? My mom is doing quite a bit of reading now, reading novels and passing them on to others who live in the center with her. I’m glad for that. I’m grateful for her passing on to me the gift of education. I was able to go so much farther than eighth grade. My mom’s passing on an inheritance to me and my siblings did not die with her father’s statement. She passed on to me a hunger to read and learn and now to write, to tell her story, my own story, and my daughter’s story. I have inherited a faith from her, a belief in hard work, and a strength of character that will not let go or give up hope.
She is beautiful, my Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.