This is my mother, Shirley Hess. The picture was taken about a year and a half ago, at my sister's wedding. Since I have an hour and a half before the end of Mother's Day, and I've never really sat down to write about my mom, I thought I would take a little time to do so.
I e-mailed a recent acquaintance yesterday to wish her a happy Mother's Day, and told her she is really the only mom I know here in Albuquerque. At least, she is the only one I've spoken with a little. The dearth of mothers in my current life has made me think a little more of my own, and the part she has played in my development as a person. Because whether she knows it or not, my mom is a big part of who I am now, some of what I want to be as I get older, and yes, even some of what I don't want to be. Each way that I view her has shaped my life, and in many ways has made me a better person.
This is me, age 2. This picture was probably taken before my mom was my mom. Let me explain that to you more. I was adopted. Except for a few bits and snatches, my life begins with my mom. I know that I was given up for adoption at birth. I know that I went to at least two foster homes before I was adopted. I also know that I was an old adoptee -- most adoptive parents want a baby.
I know that my mom wanted a baby. After years of trying to have children, and a number of miscarriages, she and my father decided to adopt. I think that they were expecting to view babies when they went to the adoption agency. However, an enterprising young social worker named Miss Brinks contrived to put me into the mix of children that they saw, and for some reason my father took a shine to me. They saw me and interacted with me at least a couple of times, and my father was hooked.
My mother, understandably, wanted a baby. She wasn't sure that she wanted a child as old as I was. When she asked my father "Vernon, are you sure that you want this little boy," his answer was something on the order of "I want a kid I can talk to."
At that point, all hinged on my mother. She had misgivings. She had doubts. She wanted a baby. And the reports on me weren't all that great. I had started speaking late, and I couldn't walk very well. The doctors at one point had thought I was brain damaged, or retarded. If she had insisted on getting a baby, then my life would have been drastically different. It is hard to say what would have happened, but as the child gets older, the possibility of adoption goes down. I could have ended up a ward of the state, shuttled in and out of foster homes, and perhaps might have been a much different person.
But my mom took a risk, probably a big risk. She acceded to my father's wishes. And to this day, she has never questioned her choice. Yes, I was a big pain in the ass at times. I had huge dental and eye problems that cost a lot of money. I wet the bed for a number of years. I was willful and rebellious, especially in my teens. But my mom stood by me a lot. A lot more times than I ever gave her credit for. Because my mom was also the family disciplinarian, which made me as I was growing up reserve my anger and resentment for her.
Knowing my mom, she probably feels guilty at times. She was harsh and strict because my father wouldn't be strict. Our family was dysfunctional, centering on my father's alcoholism, and my mother compensated for a lack of control in her family with maintaining strict control over her kids. I chafed under this control. But there were even more insidious forces working inside my family.
When I was 19, a secret that I kept was outed. My younger sister (who also was adopted) was having trouble with an eating disorder and told her psychiatrist something I had told her a few years back. I was called, and told that to help my sister, it should be laid bare in front of the family. So one day, I took off from my college classes and told my family that my father had sexually abused me for 10 years.
I know the fact that this happened eats at my mom still. And the news at the time was a blockbuster. Everybody knew my father was a raging alcoholic, though nobody did or could do anything about it. I further divided our extended family. My mom stood up for me. Eventually she divorced my dad, standing against those who questioned the wisdom of her actions. But I know that she regrets having stayed with him so long especially in light of what happened to me. She often says that she sensed something was wrong but never acted on it. Whether for right or wrong, I never held her personally responsible for what I felt was a universal catastrophe...each of us played our own role in a dysfunctional family system that needed a massive failure for us to move on. That's exactly what happened, eventually. But, I never forgot that she believed me and stood up for me, when she could have easily said I was lying.
But this is my regret. In the years since, my mom and I have not necessarily grown apart, but we've grown differently. She is very guarded of her feelings, and has been so at times where I've desperately wanted her to tell me how she feels. For example, when I got married, I asked her if she was happy for me. She had known Megan, who was to become her daughter-in-law, and liked her. At the time, I was feeling wedding jitters, and really wanted someone to steady me, and tell me I was doing the right thing. Her response was "I'm happy for you if this is what you want to do." It was typical for her, but not exactly what I needed or wanted at the time.
When I talk to my mom, there still seems to be a gulf between us. It is not that I find talking to my mom unpleasant. In fact, we do so almost once a day now. But I can predict what we will talk about. We talk about what she's done that day, what I've done that day, the weather in Fort Bragg where she lives, the weather in Albuquerque where I live, the news from the family, what I will have for dinner and whether I will be cooking or Megan will. There is a comfortable familiarity in it, but also something that is missing. I think it is because we are both so guarded about what we say to each other.
I know my mom loves me. I know that she is proud of me. But I rarely hear it from her. I hear it from other people like my sister or my aunts and uncles. I wish that we could be less guarded.
And I would love to here about my mom's life, her hopes and dreams even if they didn't come true. I have snippets of her life. In a sense, my mom was one of the last of the pioneers, raised in the forests in Northern California in lumber camps during the depression. She went to one of those storybook one room red schoolhouses. She was always the studious and practical one in her family, and was a success in high school. I heard that she was class president and quite an athlete. I have heard that she was the apple of the eye of many boys. When she met my father, she eloped to Reno, and they managed to get there despite the fact that cops were alerted. She loved to go to Vegas in the 50s, and saw Louis Prima and the Rat Pack there in their heyday. I have these little tantalizing snippets of her life, but it is very hard to get her to really talk about her life in full. And since the divorce, I think that she views her life as disappointing, with a failed marriage and kids who had to go through hell to make it through their family life (and some who are still living it).
So this is my Mothers Day mea culpa to you, mom. I'm sorry that life got difficult for you after you took me in. But in my eyes, you did a very brave and heroic thing in accepting a little boy who didn't seem quite right. I hope that you see that all in all, I've turned out fine despite everything which came after, and I couldn't have done it had you not accepted me fully, loved me, and stood up for me when things got difficult. If I had been given a choice back then, I would have chosen to be your son even if I'd known all that lay ahead. Your strength and your commitment to your children have been traits that I always hope to emulate. If I ever have a child, I hope that he or she will look to you as a shining example of how he or she should live their life.
Happy Mother's Day!