In the windowsill next to my mother’s bed at her nursing home is a framed quote that proclaims, “Everything I am, my mother made me.”
I grabbed it from a HomeGoods as a last-minute gift a few years ago, as not to show up empty-handed in one of the rare times that I visited her on Mother’s Day.
I didn’t realize that such a thoughtless gift would end up giving me so much to think about.
My mother, Barbara, is 63 years old, and lies debilitated in her bed, where she has been for at least five years and will remain until her body gives out. A series of strokes over several years crippled her body; a series of misfortunes that has been her life depressed her mind.
When I visit her, the nurses who pass in and out have curiosity written all over their faces about me. Their faces seem full of questions about the polished young woman who shows up, walking confidently through the halls with her designer handbag as if she has the world at her feet.
During my visits, a few of them will trickle in and out of the room just to “check in.” I chuckle that they do think it’s transparent what they’re up to —they’ve come to get their piece of our puzzle to take back to the nurse’s station.
I know when they look at us together they must wonder: Did my mother have anything to do with the woman I’ve become?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself. But it wasn’t until Everly, my 8-month-old daughter, came into my life that I started to explore how daughters are a reflection of their mothers.
I think in the case of me and my mother, I’ve figured it out: While my mother’s life reflects the worst of her mistakes, my life reflects the best of her. And we can both still look each other in the eyes today, and see nothing but love.
My mother and I only had seven years together. And if I’ve ever known unconditional love in my 30 years on earth, it was then.
We did everything together. She made sure I wanted for nothing.
I even slept with her until the age of 6, when I was forced into my big-girl bed kicking and screaming.
But very early on my mother’s love, and her mistakes, created a conflicted world for me.
Her love was obvious to me.
But so were her mistakes, even from a young age. I knew that the green bowl that I would dutifully retrieve for her contained marijuana, and that the men who came to my house with wads of money were there to buy drugs. I knew that my sister wasn’t cooking food in a spoon over the stove burner. I also knew that it wasn’t right that my nephews and I survived for weeks on toast, boiled eggs and whatever canned goods my 7-year-old hands could pry open.
But I also knew that the songs my mother sang to me as she put barrettes in my hair, the way she made sure my purses matched my dresses, the way she showed up in her robe at school if I misbehaved, the lengths to which she went to make sure I had every part of a kitchen set and dollhouses, were all out of love.
Eventually my mother’s love and mistakes collided.
In the summer of 1993, I found my 4-year-old nephew’s bloodied and limp body on our couch. He had overdosed on methadone he’d gotten his hands on after my mother illegally sold it to a neighborhood customer. I was living a nightmare.
And yet, the events that transpired in the weeks after that also showed me the extent of my mother’s love. As her world was unraveling, she tried to preserve mine as much as she could.
Amid a criminal investigation, my mother arranged for me to be in other places. In the end, she sent me to my grandmother’s house, where I would escape the Department of Social Services for some time, and the painful experience of watching her be arrested on our front porch.
In a newspaper article later — yes, in The Baltimore Sun where I have now been a reporter for five years — I would also find out that her love for me was apparent as she faced the consequences for her mistakes.
In pleading to lower her $100,000 bail, the article said, she told the judge that she had a young daughter that she needed to care for.
In the years since then — my mother was sentenced to 10 years in prison — I lived in group homes, foster homes, with an abusive relative, my best friend’s family, and ultimately with a beloved teacher.
Throughout that journey I’ve encountered amazing women who have come to call me their own. They got me through high school, college, graduate school, my first job, my wedding, my first house, my first child. Each of them have contributed to who I am today.
From all of the women in my life who have filled a void that my mother left — these include teachers, bosses, moms of friends—I have attempted to adopt all of their best qualities. Think: a “mom” store, and I had the pick of the best products.
From these beautiful, strong, loving women, I learned the basics: how to wear the appropriate clothes for my body type, the right foundation for my complexion, how to deal with insufferable people, how to be secure in myself and to use my story as powerful motivation in the world.
Mostly, they all stuck to what they knew. My teachers guided me through high school and my two degrees, the one who owned a business taught me how to be successful by respecting and connecting with people, those who had successful marriages guided me through boyfriends, and those who succeeded at raising families made me feel like I was a part of one and in doing that, encouraged me to start one.
I don’t think any of these women felt any particular ownership of me, but they all worked with the piece of me that they had.
They knew that I would only called one woman “mommy,” in my lifetime, and they didn’t expect the title. They understood that I didn’t need to be claimed. I just needed to be loved.
People have often asked me: “How can you even talk to your mother after all that she put you through?”
I’ve had one response: “Because my mother loved me. She just made mistakes.”
As overly simplistic as that answer may seem, I am able to directly connect pivotal moments in my life — from my nephew’s death to writing this column — as if they were pre-destined. It’s almost as if my mother failed in areas of her life so that I may succeed.
Because of her mistakes, I have been to hell. But because of her love, I made it back.
My mother showed me that mistakes will change your children’s lives, but not necessarily for the worst. And even if your children bear the brunt of even your worst mistakes, their ability to persevere is made possible if they start from a foundation rooted in love.
I’m still sorting out everything that I’ve been through.
But, now that I have a daughter I know two things for sure: I know a mother’s love, and I’m not afraid of making mistakes.
And I hope that those balance out in a way that Everly can say with pride one day: “Everything I am, my mother made me.”