“Your relationships are the most important… they make a life well lived,” Laura Bush tells her daughter Barbara in an on-camera interview. Their conversation is part of The Huffington Post’s recent Talk to Me series, in which children interview their parents. In celebration of Mother’s Day, we’ve put together our own version of Talk to Me, in which the Her.meneutics writers chat with their moms about “a life well lived.”
The mothers represented here are diverse in every possible way. One grew up in poverty in Spanish Harlem and never went to school; another has a doctoral degree. Some went to work outside the house; others stayed home. Most are biological mothers, but one is a stepmother who loved her step-kids as her own after she lost her own baby. In conversations all across the country, these daughters ask their mothers the questions they’ve always wanted answers to.
What do you most want to know about your mothers? Tell us in the comments.
Halee Gray Scott
My stepmother Karen Joiner Gray was forced by her parents to have an abortion when she was 16 years old and as a consequence was unable to have children. Years later she married my dad when I was 16 years old, and I credit her with one of the most redemptive moments in my life. I talked with her recently about that moment.
“As the eldest child in a dysfunctional family, I often took responsibility for the care of the household, which felt like an enormous burden,” I said to her. “One day you came into the kitchen, took the cleaning rag from my hand and said, ‘Halee, you will never clean this kitchen again. You go be the kid you never got to be.’”
What made you do that? What made you so accepting, so incredibly loving, even though I was not your biological child?
Before I met your dad, I was very lonely and was in constant prayer. I yearned for a husband that was loving, caring, and had a trusting heart. I yearned for children for so long, and I carried still the love and guilt I have for the child I lost. Then when I met your dad, I was blessed with both. God gave me my greatest desire: a family I could love and cherish. So [what I told you] that day—it was out of the love I had for you, your dad, and your brothers.
My mother, Dr. Myrna Grant, is an academic with a PhD and the author of more than a dozen books, including the best-selling biography of a Russian martyr, Vanya: A True Story. I was 11 when “The Siberian Seven”—Christians in the former Soviet Union— sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after being persecuted for their faith. Along with many others, my mother worked for years to raise awareness about their plight and supported their exit to Israel in 1983.
Behind her many accomplishments, however, is a woman who overcame mighty obstacles. She was ten when her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. She spent most of her childhood in foster care.
How did these early losses most affect you?
For most of my life, I’ve had a lingering sense that I didn’t belong.
In your work with dissidents, refugees, and other marginalized groups, I see you reaching out to those who don’t “belong.” Do you discern a link between the experience of being orphaned and your heart for advocacy work?
My theory is that wounded people are the most likely to help others, just as poor people have been shown to be more generous, proportionately, than the wealthy are. How it is that loss and pain bring good? I don’t know. C. S. Lewis was interested in this dynamic and wrote about it quite a lot. I see how mysterious it is, and how it resides at the heart of the universe as well as, of course, the cross.
After raising two daughters and teaching elementary school for over 30 years, my mom, Michelle, still loves kids. She shows off her butterfly garden to the neighbors, sends letters to her great-nephews, and works as a “playologist” at the children’s museum in Tampa, Florida.
“There are some moms who sit there and talk and talk and talk, and the kids go off on their own,” she told me. She gets a glimpse at a range of modern moms and parenting philosophies: homeschooling moms, adoptive moms, moms of kids with special needs, “hippie” moms with lots of kids, Supermoms who pack school vacations with plenty of activities.
Does working at the children’s museum cause you to think back to your own parenting and compare?
I see these moms with their kids and think, did I do all of this?I know that I did, but I worked, too. I always knew I wanted to work, but I still wanted to make sure you were exposed to lots of stuff. At the museum, they’re so focused on making everything an important lesson. Everything becomes a teachable moment. I see moms explaining to a two-year-old why something works, even though they’re not going to get it. That was big for Dad. He liked that I’d always be talking and reading to you.
My mom, Patsy Evans, is a pastor’s wife, a mother of two, and a marketing and publicity administrator at the University of Connecticut. This will be her 37th Mother’s Day as a mom and her second Mother’s Day without a mom.
In our conversation, I asked her to tell me some things she did for me that I don’t remember. She recalled trips to McDonald’s—“because we didn’t have much money”—where she and my dad sat months-old me on the table and made silly faces. I also asked her about caring for her own mother in the nursing home after dementia began erasing her memory. “I tried to do things she would have done for herself if she could,” she said, like choosing her clothes, combing her hair, and smoothing lotion on her dry legs.
What have you learned as a mother caring for your own mother?
Other people are very quick to judge whether or not you are doing a good job. People do this not only to someone taking care of an older person but also to mothers taking care of children. I know I’ve thought judgmental things in the past, and the Lord is teaching me I should try to put myself in someone else’s place. Maybe they are doing their very best, and I can’t know what their limitations are.
My mother, Myrna Proper, is a full-blooded Puerto Rican who was born in New York City and grew up in Spanish Harlem. She has suffered through childhood poverty, adult poverty, spousal infidelity, single motherhood (before I was born), an all-consuming house fire, a spouse with mental illness (my dad), her own depression, and the stress of caring for ailing parents. She overcame these challenges through prayer, the help of family, and the kindness of strangers and through it all has remained a servant to others.
You’ve suffered so much throughout your life, and yet still you’re the servant of all. How is that?
It’s part of being a real mother. I was trying to keep us all together. Everything isn’t always a bed of roses. That’s not real life.
How has poverty affected you?
In Manhattan, in Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, we never knew we were poor.
I didn’t know our family was poor either until college!
Abuela and Abuelo always worked hard. She cooked and sewed. He drove taxis. They had their food truck.
Do you have any advice for struggling mothers?
Never lose faith in God. Never think that the grass is going to be greener on the other side. Don’t leave your kids.
My mother, Joyce Dalfonzo, was an Army wife for 22 years and a stay-at-home mom to my sister and me. My parents’ 50th anniversary is coming up in September, and with that in mind I asked her how she and Dad made it this far. In our exchange, she kept coming back to the importance of shared faith and mutual respect. “We both love the Lord,” she told me, “and we feel like we have to make up after a fight!”
She calls her ideas about marriage rather “old-fashioned” but says they’ve worked well for her. “My mother worked… and I just didn’t think I could handle it,” she said. My dad pitched in to help with us kids when he came home from work, but my mother’s decision to stay home with us allowed her to help provide “stability” to the family and be the “nurturer” who held things together. They married young and at times she thinks they would have been wiser to wait a while, but it all worked out well, so she came to the conclusion: “I wouldn’t do anything different.”
My parents immigrated from China to California a few months before I was born. We were a typical middle-class American family until my father suddenly became ill and died in 1994. I never saw my mother’s faith waver during that traumatic time, even as she became a single parent and began working full-time as a bookkeeper to support her family. I have often wondered how my mom remained so committed to God after becoming a widow at the age of 42. When I asked her about this recently, she admitted she had a premonition about what she was getting into when she married my father.
“I knew your dad wasn’t that healthy when I first met him,” she said. He had been born premature in China during a time of widespread poverty and starvation. “When we went out on dates, I would have to take off my jacket and give it to him because he was so cold.”
She had two other eligible men pursuing her, but she wanted to be with my dad. “We were married for 20 years,” she said. “Considering the circumstances, that was a long time. It was a gift from God that we could be together for so long.”
My mother Deb Tarter is a wife, mother of four, and grandmother of ten. She has been married to my dad Rick, a bi-vocational pastor for 35 years, and together they have lived all over the country. Now that I’m a mother of three boys ages three and under, I asked her about her memories of caring for us kids growing up.
What did you enjoy most about staying home? What did you enjoy least?
The toddler years were the hardest for me. It’s non-stop busyness, which for someone like me, who needs alone time to recharge, was really hard. But the Lord really convicted me in those years to always greet you in the morning with a happy face. I thought it was vitally important for your well being that I was there. The best part about being home [was that] I really felt like I was investing in you. I loved watching you all learn and grow through each season, and those [memories] are what bring a smile to my face now.