Today is Mother's Day, and it is the first time I haven't been unhappy about it. As I celebrate with my husband and two teen-agers at our Corona del Mar home, I'll be able to remember my own mother with more compassion than I ever thought I could feel for her.
When my sister, Janice, and I were young, it wasn't safe to live with our mom. She had uncontrollable mood swings that meant the difference for us between feeling safe or terrified. When she abused us physically and verbally, we were placed in an orphanage for our protection, but we thought we were bad and would not have been taken there if we were better children.
We spent most of our early years in orphanages in the Los Angeles area, not knowing why our mom was different. We just waited for her to visit, and sometimes she did.
She suffered many tragedies, especially the death of our father when Janice was 5 months old and, Mom discovered after the funeral, she was carrying me. And most of her life, she was dealing with the tragedy of her own illness; I learned as an adult that she had been diagnosed as a manic-depressive but had not been treated with lithium, the drug that today helps many manic-depressives lead normal lives.
When I was 9 and my sister was 10, our mom took us from an orphanage to a house in San Pedro. We stayed with her until we were grown. But her wild mood swings never stopped. We didn't understand her behavior. We felt she loved us. When she wasn't upset, she was kind, loving, happy, funny. But then, without warning, the violent moods would come. We never knew what to expect, so we were on the emotional roller coaster along with her. We felt responsible.
Why do I feel differently about Mother's Day this year? Looking back, I realize now how my mother's illness gave me the privilege of having many moms. I want them to know how much they have enriched my life. I feel I have received a little bit of the best of each of them, and I want to thank them for welcoming me into their lives.
First there were the nuns--the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul--who took care of us at a Los Angeles orphanage that has since relocated to Rosemead under the name Maryvale. Sister Elizabeth was among those who made me feel special, even though I was one of many children under her care. She's still there, teaching the Vietnamese who come to the orphanage for English lessons. I will always marvel at how she managed to give each child a sense of belonging. Aunt Mary, my father's sister, also gave me a lot during those early years in the orphanage. She'd take me and my sister to her home for visits, or we'd eat out and go shopping for clothes. And she was always there for special occasions at the orphanage.
Sheltered by Neighbor
Later, when we lived in San Pedro, there was a neighbor, Ann Suytar, who sheltered me during my mother's violent times. I'd hide under her bed while she tried to calm my mother. I used to love to watch Ann put on her makeup in the bathroom; I'd sit on the edge of the tub, and she would chat with me. What I said seemed to matter to her. Sometimes, we would pile into her '51 black Mercury and go to the beach for a picnic. I took special care not to get any sand in her new car. She also cooked many breakfasts for us because mornings were particularly difficult for my mom.
In my early teens, there was Mary Surina, the mother of one of my best friends. Mary had a small house, but she always had room for one more at her dinner table--usually me. To show my appreciation for her hospitality and wonderful Yugoslav meals, I would iron for her.
We also received a lot of love from our grandmother, Nana, who would spend her meager Social Security allotment shopping for clothes for us from thrift shops long before it became fashionable.
Life became better for us when my mother married Maurice Ruud, who adopted us. I was 11 when they married. Through this kind, understanding man, I added two more moms to my growing up years--his sister, Emmy, and his brother's wife, Doree.
Emmy wasn't married, and she wasn't lonely. She loved books, gourmet cooking and giving of herself to others--and that was reflected back to her. She drove Meals on Wheels and had many friends in her sewing circle. Her quiet sanctuary was shattered by this busy, rambunctious teen-ager and the friends I'd bring to her house. She became one of my best friends, and I miss her a lot, especially on special occasions because it was Emmy who made Christmas decorations for our family and brought holiday traditions into our lives.
Helped With Wedding
During my years at Cal State Los Angeles, I lived with Doree, her husband, Robert, and their three sons in Arcadia. Doree, an administrator with the Upland School District, encouraged me to get my teaching credential. She said I was the daughter she never had. She did "mothery" kinds of things, like helping me with my wedding.
I inherited my last special mom through marriage. Dorothy has helped me in my role as a mother through her own loving example. She is now 85, a vital, interested and interesting person--a source of love in our family.
There is no reason for sadness this Mother's Day. I have been very fortunate to have so many moms in my life--some of the very best. As for my real mom, I love her, too. For a long time, I did not because I didn't understand her pain. I now know it is not a matter of forgiveness. You don't forgive people with illnesses like cancer or other serious health problems. They can't help their pain. Neither could she.
My mother died seven years ago this May. If she were here, I would put my arms around her and lovingly say, as I would to all my moms, "Happy Mother's Day."