“I am a mother and mothers don’t have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults.”
― Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
My mother named me after her. Her name was Natalie. My given name is Natonia. I felt the weight of what having a derivation of her name meant after she died.
My Mom Died Young
My mom and I both had children when we were fifteen years old. My mother dropped out of school, had five more children, and died early of heart disease.
My mother died when she was 53 years old. I was only 38. Every August, the grief of her untimely death deeply saddens me, especially when I see others my age who still have their mom. My grandmother outlived my mother. She would tell me about my mom’s hopes and dreams for me, although back when I was born, there was a huge stigma attached to teenage mothers and their children.
I graduated high school in the top ten percent, got a Bachelor’s in Engineering, a Master’s in Business, a Certification in Professional Management, became a Professional Engineer, learned Kaizen from the Japanese in Japan, and had one more child.
I ended my career as the Vice President of Operations, second in command of a nuclear sensor manufacturing region, a job few in the world can successfully handle, even now. My mom made me continue being successful in my life. It was what she expected.
I inherited her heart disease, but I have had the best care that an executive health benefits package could provide. I’m hoping to get to 100 years old despite the fact that heart disease is insidious.
We Were Too Much Alike
My mother ensured that although I had started down the teenage mother’s path, I did not get off the education train. She knew education was the key to changing your destiny. So, she poked, probed, yelled, and sometimes screamed to change mine.
We clashed at every stage once I turned 14. I was just like her — smart, tenacious, strong-willed, manipulative, and stubborn enough to get my own way. Looking back now, I wanted to do my own thing, which would have been a disaster.
My mother was smarter than me. She held onto her house, kept her six kids safe, and fed with less than a high school education. None of us ended up in the prolific gangs around our home. There are no criminals among my siblings. My mother did that.
I Had Her
So, what was the difference in our lives? She was. I had her. Even considering the different times and opportunities, I recognized long ago my path would have been very different if my mom had not been by my side. She was always doing her best to guide me.
When my siblings called me to tell me, my mother was ignoring the doctor’s advice. There was nothing they could do to make her cooperate. I was living in California, a long way from where they lived. I tried managing my mom from the West Coast, but she would not do as I asked. She continued to do whatever she wanted in Illinois, no matter what she told me on the phone. I’m certain she intended to follow my requests until she hung up the phone.
My spouse wanted to move out of California because of his out-of-control driving time to work. We relocated to the Midwest. I found a position 85 minutes away from my mom in a Milwaukee, WI suburb called Oak Creek. We did not want to return to the cold but decided we would for as long as my mother was alive.
Once I moved near Chicago, she cooperated with her doctors. I would join her on appointments as needed. Just the fact that her firstborn child was within reach caused her to behave better.
Drinking And Laughing
We would drive down on weekends to stay overnight, picking up my grandma on the way. My spouse would get some Chicago delicacies. Their favorites included Italian Fiesta pizza, Chinese food, deep-fried seafood, and Chicago dogs. We always bought plenty because we knew they would be shared with an unknown number of people.
They drank cold beers while I drank wine. Sometimes, we sat in the living room with old-school clear plastic-covered furniture; other times, on the front porch. Every person who walked by, no matter if we were inside or outside, would be called over by my mother. She would offer them beer or wine and regaled them with tales of her successful daughter: me. She told the stories to her friends. They often spoke as if I was not present. I sat and sipped my wine, providing details if required.
I did not know how many lives my mom touched until she died. Oh, I knew that a constant stream of people visited her while she was ill, but I did not know how many lives she affected. When we held the funeral, we requested the larger chapel just because we have so many cousins, as my grandmother was the baby of nineteen children.
An Overflow Service
The funeral home insisted we take a smaller sitting room but agreed to upgrade at no cost if we needed it. I mean, how many people would come to see an old Black woman who was not famous?
On the day of the wake, they had to open two alternate parking lots and move us to their largest chapel. They had to remove the dividers between the other chapels to accommodate the people who showed up to sit with us. Since many of my mom’s friends were living in deep poverty, we had to make sure they were not turned away. Many of the attendees looked poor because they were poor.
On the funeral day, the flowers that showed up overwhelmed the staff. They were prepared for the people after the wake the prior day, but not the flowers or the gifts. We took some of them and put them in our cars. It turned out our mom had been a helper to many whenever they needed help. Her kindness had been there since we were children, so it was just normal for us.
It’s Me Now
It was during the funeral that the epiphany hit me that now I was the person who had to pick up the heavy burden of kindness to others. I was the one that my siblings would call now that my mom was gone. I was the one her friends would look to for answers that Ma would have provided. I thought about all the times she called me and asked me how to do this or how to do that — much of the time, those things were not about her but someone else.
It was the first time I fully understood what being named after my mother meant. That we had transferred her hopes and dreams onto me. I was glad I had always shared my successes and failures with her, even when I thought she did not understand. I spent many a lazy Saturday and Sunday afternoon with my mom and grandmama, telling them the tales of my work and life adventures.
Always Working to Be Better
After she died, I became astute at paying attention to her legacy of helping people when she could. My name was to be lived up to. I did my best, but I don’t believe I’ll ever reach her level. I do my best, but there is something in me that strikes back at those who hurt me. I am not the best forgiver.
I know Ma enjoyed my tales of the life I lived and was proud of me. We shared ‘I love you’ often.
Every August, when the grief comes sharply back, that knowledge soothes me. Joy and sadness wash over me like an ocean wave. The wave recedes, and my life continues — exactly as she would have wanted.
Toni Crowe retired from corporate America to follow her writing passion. She shares her hard-won life lessons in her writing, with six books written including two best sellers.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.