(Photos: top – Millicent; bottom – Marlene)
One day, we children at St. Catherine of Siena school were instructed to create a spiritual bouquet for Mother’s Day. A spiritual bouquet is a card with a promise to say certain prayers for the recipient – say, 5 Hail Marys, 2 Our Fathers etc. We were told that this spiritual bouquet should be for our mother, whether living or dead. This conforms to the Catholic belief in praying for the souls of the deceased.
The assignment posed a dilemma for me. My mother had died when I was 13 months old, but I had a new mother, the woman my father married when I was 3. What to do? I made two cards.
Losing my mother Millicent at such a young age must have been traumatic, but I don’t remember her or the time she was taken away from me. After her death, my Aunt Patty, who was married to my father’s brother, took me in and mothered me and my sisters along with her own children. I am eternally grateful to my beloved Aunt Patty for saving my emotional life.
When my dad remarried, I gained a stepmother. Stepmothers don’t have a very good image in folklore or popular culture. My new mom, Marlene, always said how much she disliked the term. But I sometimes clung to the image, especially when I felt Marlene’s discipline was too harsh. I even recall once wishing my “real” mother were still alive.
When I became a mother myself, I started to realize what a “real” mother truly is, and it’s not just a matter of biology. I looked back and saw what a struggle it must have been for my mother Marlene to take on five new daughters in addition to her own five children. I saw the many sacrifices she made for us on a daily basis – all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, doctor visits, baths, hair washing, discipline, faith development.
My mom Marlene was and is a beautiful woman. I loved the way she wore her hair in a French twist, loved her chic outfits and even her fancy aprons, the ones she’d wear when cooking for company. I loved to go to the grocery store with her and hang around in the kitchen while she worked. In a family of 13, those were some of the only times I got to be alone with her.
I still have vague recollections of the day we kids were all adopted. We got to get out of school, dress up, and go to the courthouse in downtown Chicago. There we witnessed our parents declare they would always take care of not only their biological children, but their spouse’s children as well. So my mother is not really a stepmom, but an adoptive mom. I myself am an adoptive mom, and I couldn’t love my biological children more than I love my youngest child from China.
I’m not discounting the special bond of a biological mother, though. I remember the intimate feelings of connectedness with my children from the very first flutterings I felt in the womb. Pictures of my biological mother Millicent confirm that I look a lot like her, and I know that losing her left a hole in my heart that has been difficult to fill. Surely some of my insecurity and fear of abandonment stem from losing her.
On Mother’s Day, I celebrate the great good fortune to have had not one, but two beloved mothers (three if you count dear Aunt Patty), and I treasure all I have meant to them and they to me in our lives. No matter whether you are a mother by biology, marriage, or circumstance, know that your presence in your children’s lives is the greatest gift they will ever receive.
Happy Mother’s Day!