A Good Mother

Even if I didn’t think so.

By Joey Kennedy

May is a tough month. It’s Mother’s Day month. While there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about my dead mother, it wasn’t always that way. As a young boy and teen, I did not like my mother. She was short, both in stature and temper. She was a curser. Not the F-bomb, but plenty of D-bombs and S-bombs.

I was a smart-aleck. She’d let loose a series of profanities, either over something I’d done wrong or a report card I’d brought home. Something.

I would talk back. She would slap.

Mom was Southern stubborn, set in her ways, and by God, she ruled the house. Dad was gone a lot, at his job; Mom worked, too, but she was home more. When my sisters and I were young, Mom was mostly home.

My mom, Pat, made what I perceived were arbitrary decisions about discipline or friends I could ask over or what I was going to eat for lunch. I pushed back. She would slap.

Mom was tough, and I hated her.

Romona Wells was a colleague of mine at The Birmingham News. She’s now 65, but she raised two wonderful sons. Romona also raised or helped raise five other family children. At one point, she was feeding and clothing three great nieces.

Romona was the mom, the aunt, the grandmother, who stepped in. “As a family, we always said none of our family’s children would be in foster care.” So they weren’t. Romona was a tough mom. And a good one.

My parents, and mainly my mom, took in kids, too. Our two cousins—my mom’s brother’s children—lived with us for a time. My mother took in one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends and I suddenly had a roommate.

I never remember my cousins or “foster” brother suffering the wrath of Pat. I do remember being jealous of the kind attention my mother delivered to them.

At some point my cousins went back to their dad, and my older “foster” brother went to college and then to the Air Force. I was the only boy again. And mom directed D-bombs and S-bombs my way.

I joked that for a time that I didn’t know if my first name was “Dammit” or “Shi-.”

Julie Lessman Gast was in the Sunday school class I taught at Southside Baptist Church for a decade. I started teaching her when she was a fifth-grader. She’s married now and has two daughters.

Julie confessed that more than Jesus, what she remembers first about our Sunday school was “Hershey’s hugs and Sprees.” I gave them candy; I never claimed to be a particularly good Sunday school teacher.

Julie grew up, graduated from college, and has been married eight years now. Her daughters are her joy.

“Motherhood is the best,” Julie said. “Cherish every stage and phase, whether good, bad or ugly, because one day your baby will be five years old and headed to kindergarten, and you’ll wonder how we got here so soon.”

I never really got the idea that Mom thought “motherhood is the best.” I think she looked at it more as a stressful duty she couldn’t ditch. She and my father argued a lot. Sometimes loudly.

Mostly their arguments were about my father’s drinking. My dad was an alcoholic, and that certainly wasn’t easy for any of us, but especially not for her.

Once, when I was about 15, my mother burst into my bedroom.

“I’m leaving your father,” she hollered. “Are you coming with me?”

“I’m staying with whoever stays in this house,” I told her. Mom stomped out, and I heard the car drive away. I put my headphones back on. The next morning, Mom was back, and as far as I was concerned, all was well.

My friends April and Ginger Aaron-Brush have been together 21 years, legally married since 2012, and they adopted their daughter even before that.

Their daughter, Avery, is now 11.

“Being a parent is the most challenging, yet most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Ginger said. “When Avery was younger, shortly after her adoption, people would say that she was so lucky and blessed to have been adopted by us, that we changed her life for the better. Those people really had no clue, because it was our life that was truly changed, and we were the ones that were blessed.”

Added April: “We have always felt that Avery was definitely supposed to be our daughter. She is an amazing young pre-teen. She teaches us so much about life and gives so much of herself to everything that she does.”

When I was a kid, I don’t think my mom thought I taught her much, about life or otherwise. Oh, I was a curious kid. I liked to know things, how things worked, why something didn’t.

Once, Mom and I were arguing over the definition of a word. I don’t remember the word. But she thought I was wrong, and I thought I was right. I suggested we consult the dictionary.

We did, and I was right. But Mom refused to surrender. “That damn dictionary is wrong,” Mom said.

I know being a mother is scary. I think it was especially scary for my mom, because her husband was an alcoholic. Patrice and Roy Williams, friends from The News, battled infertility for seven years. Finally, Patrice got pregnant. The most scary thing about being a mom, Patrice said, is “the uncertainty.”

“I often wonder, am I doing this right? Is the advice I’m giving sound?” Patrice said. “Our goal is for them to implement the Christian principles we have planted in them so they will be productive members of society.” But most rewarding about being a parent, Patrice said, is “seeing pure joy in your child’s eyes. That is the most rewarding experience any mother can have.”

I don’t think it was joy my mother was seeing in her 17-year-old son’s bloodshot eyes when she confronted him on a night in 1973.

“What’s wrong with you, Joey?” she asked sternly, as I stood obediently before her. “Have you been smoking pot?”

I reeked of pot. “Of course not,” I said, apparently with a straight face. For once, my mom let it go.

Brittney and Tate Luker are 27 years old. Both are former students of mine at UAB. They met in my class, got married and, in a span of two years, had three children (a daughter and boy twins).

All the while, Brittney was battling Lyme Disease. For too long, Brittney went through seizures and pain and infections before doctors correctly diagnosed her. Still, her oldest daughter has given Brittney her greatest scare.

“Soon after Ellie Grace was born, I knew something was not right,” Brittney said. “She was floppy, squishy, and she wasn’t hitting milestones like other children her age.” Once again, Brittney found herself in a medical system that couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Her daughter was tested for diseases that were certainly fatal.

“We were told she may never walk,” Brittney said. “God had other plans for my miracle girl. At 16 months, she finally rolled over. She made good progress with therapy, and learned to walk with a pediatric walker, mostly on her own. Two days after the twins were born, she took her first steps independently, and has continued to progress and amaze us ever since. This experience definitely sits at the top of my ‘most frightening’ moments as a mother,” Brittney said.

Today, Ellie Grace is running and jumping and playing with her friends, thanks in large part to a mother who wouldn’t give up.

Mom never gave up, either. I may have thought she did, at some point, but she didn’t. After I left home, we became amazing friends. She and my father divorced; he married and divorced two more times. Mom never remarried.

She did get cancer, though, and through her long battle, I witnessed her strength, courage, and grace, even through the S-bombs.

My wife and I visited her the weekend before she died in late February 1997. My sisters and lots of relatives crowded her Houston townhouse. As I’ve written before, mom was breathing oxygen from a tube attached to a small machine on the side of her hospital bed. She was out as much as she was in.

On that Monday morning, I hugged my mother, and Veronica and I returned to Birmingham, to our home, to our friends.

I spoke with Mom for the last time on the Tuesday night before she died. My sister held the phone to Mom’s ear. I said nothing very original or profound. Simply: “I love you, Mother.”

Over the telephone line, all I could hear was the faint hum of the oxygen machine. Mom was 63.

Hug your mom this Mother’s Day. Hug her every day.

Leave a Reply