This is my third Mother’s Day without my son. But blessed be, this year I’m happy to say that both of my sister’s in law became Mommy’s this winter, and I feel like that changes tomorrow in a very big and very welcome way for our family. While I began considering the relief I feel to have some of the focus of my family (& myself) shift away from me, I also started thinking a lot about my own mom. My heart floods with so many emotions when I think about how long it has been since we started sharing Mother’s Day celebrations with each other—or how long it’s been since this day was just about her, for me.
This got me wistful. Which got me thinking about my mom’s resilience.
My mom is the oldest of 6 children. She was raised by her mother and stepfather after the age of two, which is when her other siblings started to arrive in the family. Her stepfather, my grandpa– an amazing man, was in the Air Force and they moved a lot, including overseas, before arriving in Honor, Michigan.
((Russell is a bun in the oven here!)
As the oldest she had a lot of family responsibility from very early on. I’m not sure if she really ever got to be a kid because many times she had to be the mom while my grandma was not well physically or mentally. This instilled in her early on a rare work ethic and selflessness.
Her real father was always a missing person in her life– she didn’t have any relationship with him until she was in her 40’s. This infused her early life with some measure of sorrow and wonder about herself that always made her feel a bit like an outsider.
She met my father upon his return from serving our country in Vietnam. His parents owned a gas station next door to her parents. She found her “person’ in him–her home, even now 44 yrs and counting. They fell in love and married one week after my mom turned 18, which was just about 5 months before she would graduate high school. The bus would not pick her up because she was married so she drove my dad’s motorcycle to school. (I’ve always loved this about her.) One year and 3 weeks after she married, she had her first child, my sister Jennifer Mary. She loved being a mother and a wife– she still does. She would go on to have me 2 yrs later and Jessica Elizabeth, almost 5 yrs after me. Three girls, whom she sewed dresses and Barbie doll clothes for and braided our hair and taught us impeccable manners and when we fought, made us hug it out. She showed us what kindness and acts of service looked like and also what sacrifice meant, through her own choices. She took really good care of her children, I see that so clearly as the epitome, the legacy of her mothering. She was a domestic goddess for sure– when I was little I was pretty sure my mom’s favorite hobby was cleaning or laundry or cooking or gardening. I still kind of do.
When I was 7, one of her brothers, my Uncle Peter, died in an accident at the age of 25. The whole family was devastated. I’m not sure my mom was ever the same person after that happened– she lost an innocence and a faith in the safety and order of things. I think as children we were keenly aware of her sadness and wanted to make her happy immediately after his death, but soon moved on as children do. She never truly did, though I wasn’t acutely aware of this, so much as I was intuitively aware, because I watched and listened and hung on every word of the adults around me, especially my mom.
My parents were modest and non-materialistic people. They valued their family, home, hard work and each other over all things. I think money was scarce for them but I’m proud to say “I think” because that was never a burden they placed upon us, nor did we want for anything. This in and of itself amazes me more as I get older, that they took such good care of us and maintained a home on modest incomes. My father always worked atleast one full time job and my mom stayed home with us and had part time jobs until I was in 6th grade. One of those jobs was as an early morning deliverer of the Detroit News. On weekends the sale ads and “funnies” had to be manually added to the rest of the newspaper, often my father would help her “stuff” them and go out on the road with her. One such weekend, while they were out on the route, the three of us girls, ages 12, 10 & 5, were home sleeping. Our house caught on fire, and burned quickly to the ground, destroying everything we owned, yet we three little girls survived. Now, I should mention here that though my parents were gone at the time of the fire, our mom saved our lives, intuitively! Our house, a “trailer”, was made of aluminum and steel, a fact which constantly worried my mom, having seen fires destroy trailer parks as a child in Biloxi, Mississippi. My parents had us practice what to do in the event of a fire to quell my mom’s fears– something we perfected with random and unannounced fire drills on weekend mornings, throughout our childhood, where they first taught and then expected us to respond appropriately. It worked.
Losing everything we owned was really difficult, but my mother was particularly heartbroken that all our photographs were gone. She had amassed quite a library of photo albums of us girls, her own entire lifetime, including those of her brother Peter, and photos of my father’s time in Vietnam. Irreplaceable though they were, she never forgot what a miracle it was that we were ok.
Although she never attended college, she is very intelligent and usually found herself in managerial positions at work. This meant her role was important, and yet, she felt her most important role was to her family and as such, I don’t think she ever missed any curricular or extra curricular activity of us girls. She also never shied away from feeding a whole team (or church or funeral for that matter!). She would travel and encourage and console when needed and she would do it again tomorrow even when an ungrateful child (ahem, me) didn’t even say thank you, or get how much sacrifice she made.
She held strong opinions that were often in opposition to my own and she was always trying to teach a lesson. I didn’t understand back then that she had convictions—like the time I excitedly came home from school to tell her about the theory of evolution that I learned from my favorite new teacher who seemed to be everything my mom wasn’t; a feminist, a free spirit, and not a mom. My mom went right down to the school and told that teacher “you better give equal time to the story of creation or I will remove my child from your class”. Or the time I boycotted a “chauvinist” teacher’s class, in 6th grade, which she allowed me to do for three whole days, but in the end, made me return to the classroom because I “had proved the point”. And then, after 7th grade, where I had every class with my bestie and all 6 teachers told her we were talking too much in class and I was not working to my potential, she insisted that for 8th grade we would have ZERO classes together.
She held true to her word, a fact I didn’t fully appreciate as her rebellious middle child. If I could find a way to disagree with her or (try to) prove her wrong, or assert my independence, you can be sure that I exceeded my potentiality in that regard. So, it likely came as no shock that I found myself unexpectedly expecting at the age of 19, making my mom a grandmother at the age of 41.
Our relationship improved significantly when I became a mother to Isaac Julian Ryan-McKinnon. Both of us being so young, and me still being hopelessly mischievous when it came to her, I teasingly called her Granny, which she didn’t like even a little bit until the day that Isaac called her Granny and she became Granny to all. Her relationship with my child was one of the most important connections he made and for a long-time Granny was his favorite person outside of his Daddy and me. They shared a love for comfy, clean, & tasty as well as NASCAR and the big 3 sports using a ball. To witness the way that she cared for him and looked out for him, and the relief and complete trust I had in her so that I could work as much as I needed as a young parent is a priceless treasure, still treasured. When my sisters children, Abigail Rose & then Jackson Charles were born, she continued to be the best Granny to them, and to many others.
My grandpa, the man who raised my mom, became “terminally ill” when I was in junior high, but lived for 11 years after that diagnosis with great difficulty equal only to sheer will & the great care from both my grandmother and my mom. When he died in 2001 my mom (& dad) was such a steady rock for my grandma. When grandma became ill herself in 2002, my mom tirelessly worked to keep her healthy, happy and strong (and alive!) as long as she could, until she passed in 2004. Afterwards, things became tenuous between her & her siblings and I began to see my mother’s frailty for the first time in my entire life, as she had always been the strongest woman I knew—physically & emotionally.
Then in 2005, her baby brother, Russell, would die unexpectedly and without explanation at the age of 39. Because of health issues, my grandma was hospitalized for 90 days after Russell was born and my mom, aged 11 and the oldest, became his (and the other kids) primary caregiver. He was born March 31 and she was pulled out of school for the remainder of the school year to tend to their needs, as my grandfather’s position in the Air Force required him on base & on duty as expected, regardless. This secured a lifelong bond between youngest and oldest siblings and his death broke her heart again.
Though her faith was tested, she pulled closer to God, unwavering in her worship and service, in Jesus name, amen. Having always been a fan of mom sayings, like “never stoop to anyone else’s level”, she has never allowed her pain to distract her from her faith.
Also of deep comfort became her reunion with her biological father and his children, and their children, which continues to flourish and be a source of healing for her ever evolving story, a story I recently read someone say was “one of love, loss and faith”, which could not be a more accurate testament to the enduring legacy of my mother’s life. She opened herself so courageously to the exploration of these family ties and shared them with her 3 grandchildren, traveling and showing up even when she felt vulnerable and out of her comfort zone. She has never backed down from staying connected and engaged to love and devotion and the pursuit of happiness for herself & her family.
In 2014 at the age of 60 she began to whole heartedly embrace self-care for the first time in her life. Always the first in line to help others, she decided to include herself on her to do list and joined Cross Fit with a zeal for herself usually reserved for her children & grandchildren. This was a source of great pride for Isaac, who thought it was pretty cool & daunting at the same time, that his Granny was in better shape than him as he recovered from a knee surgery and sat out football his senior year of high school. To see them discuss her workouts will always be a joyful memory because the stronger she got the more impressed Isaac got, even remarking once that “Granny could probably kick my you know what”.
That summer was the year I really started to see my mother’s humanity, grace & sheer tenacity. I started to comprehend the little girl with big responsibility who became a young wife and then mother with even more resting upon her shoulders. I realized how little she had valued her “ownness” as much as ours, how her essential needs were likely never known, much less acknowledged or met. This idea that she should have all the answers fell away, and not because she had failed, rather it is because I could see her, I could see myself. I could see the expectations, demands, and capacities—the parallels—we were, before everything else, someone’s daughters, shaped by whatever understanding our mothers had, and their mothers, and theirs, and theirs.
I could finally see my mother as a sister.
And then my Isaac died and life itself became a ghastly nightmare we could not wake up from. The heaving aching keening agony of his death fell along a tectonic fault line beneath our feet and ripped us away from each other, pulling us all into our own quicksand. Sinking us in solitary confinement.
Or maybe that was is just me.
The unbearable heartache developed into a full-blown inability to regulate rhythm in my mom’s battered heart. A condition best explained as evidence of how chronic stress impacts the body over a lifetime or how you really can have a broken heart.
And yet, I witness her continue to emulate, as she always has, what it means to rise and shine. She still gives all she can, all she has, so that others will have what they need—love, food, time, laughter, empathy. She would tell you she has no idea how she has managed to survive, but I think I know her secret from watching her, from listening to her– since she was a little girl, lifting her little brother from his bassinet; she elevates others and carries herself, with persistence, grace, love & faith, she is at her core, resilient.
I see you Mom. I love you and I see you and I’m so grateful for you. Happy Mother’s Day.