I loved my mom. She was wonderful and flawed at the same time, like most moms. I’ve written posts about her in years past and will put the link at the bottom of this post for you to read if you would like.
But today I am also thinking about my other mothers. They were the women who also helped raise me. They didn’t help raise me in the ‘I went to live with them’ sense. They helped raise me in the ‘they took time to love me and nurture me’ sense.
Aunt Betty wasn’t my aunt. And her husband, Uncle Frank, wasn’t my uncle. I didn’t realize this until I was probably 10 years old or so. That’s when I figured out we called them that because they were as close as relatives to us, not actual relatives. What they actually were were my God Parents.
But in real life Aunt Betty was my mother’s best friend while we lived in California. They were the Lucy and Ethel combo, funny by themselves but hilarious when together. From the time of my birth until we moved away when I was 12 Betty treated us (my older sister and I) like her own kids, and my mom treated her kids as her own as well. That included watching over us, keeping us in line and feeding us among other things. It included letting us have complete freedom within their house. Their house, high overlooking the Del Mar racetrack and airport was, and still is, the best, most fantastic house I’ve ever ‘lived’ in. It was definitely the golden age of free range parenting and we ranged wide and free around both homes. I wouldn’t change a thing about my young life and she’s a big reason why.
When we lived in Maryland briefly during my first few years we had a housekeeper come in once in a while. I don’t remember Libby from those years. Years later we had moved back to California and when my mother had a late pregnancy and my younger sister was born Libby, who had also moved to California, actually came to live with us for many weeks to help out. While my mother took care of Jackie, Libby took care of the house and my sister and me.
We had a nice house but it wasn’t big enough for Libby to have her own room. My room was actually a big playroom downstairs, big enough that Libby became my roommate for those weeks. It was totally awesome.
What I remember about Libby really is pretty fuzzy but I remember how much she loved me. I also remember how she silently championed me, the younger underdog, in my battles with my older sister. She loved Nancy as well and didn’t take sides, but she was always letting me know that it wouldn’t always be that she could beat me up, or it wouldn’t always be that she would be the boss of me. I held on to those promises for dear life during those years.
One of the most profound and devastating moments of my life, the first real eye opener into the wider world I ever got, was the day we went to Libby’s house. I had never seen it and I just assumed, as most kids would, that she probably lived in a house like ours. I was wrong. I remember driving up and seeing what in my mind was a completely dilapidated shack. Worn wood, crooked steps, mud. I really truly was shocked. I remember thinking we needed desperately to bring Libby back to live with us, that we just couldn’t let her live in that type of place. I had no idea about poverty or race or inequality until that moment. I was 9 years old.
Libby taught me so much but most of all she told me that no matter the issues of race, poverty or inequality, you still could be loving, supportive and happy. I also always remembered how she gave me a hope for the future. Of course, in my case, my hope for the future as simply to be able to wrestle my big sister to the ground, but she knew that and gave me the hope that was appropriate for who I was. That was a big gift.
Helene was another friend of my mothers. She had met my mother in line at a grocery store decades before in Maryland when we had lived there for a brief time. We moved to Connecticut when I was 12 and we moved to the same town she lived in by then, Darien, Connecticut. Helene was not a typical Darienite. She was bawdy and irreverent and funny. She had a witheringly sharp tongue for pretension and snobbishness that could rear it’s ugly head too often in Darien. My mother was the same way.
What made her an important ‘other’ mother to me, and what really set her apart was her creativity and her desire, no – her demand, that one pay attention to creativity in their own life. It was a godsend for me as an artistic teenager to have someone like that pay attention to me.
Her home was a reflection of all that as well. It was messy and cluttered in the best artistic way. She had sculptures here and photos there. A painting leaning against a wall, a clay head in the inca style being worked on in her studio. Trinkets and books and everything else inhabiting that space just screamed art, creativity and freedom.
She challenged me as an artist. I remember taking a trip to New York City with her to go to a Picasso Sculpture Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. When I told her the pieces looked like anyone could do them she said one of the single most important and profound things any one has ever said to me about being an artist. She said, “It Doesn’t matter if you CAN do it. It matters if you DO do it.” It took me years to figure out what that meant, but when I did it clarified so much about art that it really broke me through to art maturity in my mind.
She also was witness to my family falling apart. She saw my mother descend into alcoholism and she was the first person I called when I found my mother unconscious on the stairs, suffering from what we would later find out was a cerebral hemorrhage. It was not an easy time and she was there to help out.
My best friend during my teenage years was a guy named Jim Moore. I can thank his mother for our becoming friends. She saw that we had moved in down the street and within a day or two she kicked Jim out of the house and told him to go down the street to meet the new kid and not go come back until he had. So he did and we became pretty fast friends from then on.
Ginny gladly welcomed me in to her home, always making me feel welcomed and loved. They took me on vacations (and we took Jim on some as well). They suffered through me being the rabble rousing teen that I was, including several instances where I broke, ruined, wrecked or otherwise caused mayhem to descend onto various possessions of theirs.
I was sort of the Eddie Haskell (A 60s TV show, ‘Leave it to Beaver’ reference for those not old enough to know) to the Moore Family. Nice but always tending to get Jim and myself into some sort of adventure. It wasn’t all me of course. Jim was pretty good at finding adventure himself. What Ginny saw was the importance of our friendship and bond and allowed all the wild things to transpire as part of that bonding. I am grateful for that!
When I moved away after my senior year of high school but wanted to come back and live in Darien the next summer, they graciously allowed me to stay the entire summer in their house. It didn’t occur to me until much later what a incredible gift that was.
I’ve written often over the years about the incredible man, Dwight Johnson, who was the father of my first wife, Kathy. I don’t talk as often about her mother, Vivian, but she was incredibly important in helping me move into adulthood and being a husband and parent.
We had a good relationship, one that included a lot of patience on her part, watching this young ‘bad boy’ marry her daughter after only about 9 months of dating. We were a lot alike in many ways. We were the two most competitive people in the family, often going head to head in legendary Scrabble battles at the family cabin. She was feisty but also very focused on being positive and nice. She could say sharp things but chose not to most of the time. She gritted her teeth and smiled when she probably wanted to hit me, or at least yell at me.
She was supportive, kind and understanding as she watched her daughter and I build a life for our family, slowly and with a number of missteps on my part. She didn’t always like me but she always encouraged and supported me in spite of that. That taught me a good lesson about what it means to be a parent and parent-in-law.
It Takes a Village
None of us were raised in a vacuum. I am so grateful for all the women I mentioned above (and others I didn’t mention) who made up my village of nurturers, caretakers, friends, and visionaries. They helped me so much, I could never repay it so all I (or any of us) can really do is pay it forward as best I can.
Who are your ‘other mothers’ and how did they help you?
© 2015 Marty Coleman