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My mother passed away 6 years ago this week. She was just 59.

 

I bristle when people talk about the “traditional family” - that a child needs both a mom and a dad to help shape their lives. Sure that’s ideal, but it wasn’t my upbringing - and my mother can be a lesson and example for all of us.

My mom was divorced twice. The first time was when I was 5. I don’t remember much, but I do know my dad was not ready to be a father. My mom made the courageous decision to split up with him and try and raise my brother and I on her own.

We moved away from Denver to her hometown in northeastern Colorado in 1975. I was 5. My younger brother was 3. We lived in a mobile home because it was all she could afford.

Mom worked as a cashier in a grocery store. These were in the days before scanners. I have a vivid memory of how proud she was to earn her “touch checker” pin from Safeway- meaning she could ring you up without looking at the buttons on her cash register.

She married again in 1977. My youngest brother was born later that year.

That marriage ended when she decided her second husband’s alcoholism and abusiveness was too much to bear anymore. We moved out - my mom and three boys - into a single-level house with three small bedrooms. They were too small for us to share - so my mom slept on the couch.

She took a job working in the cafeteria of the local elementary school. The money I had saved up from my job at the local radio station helped us get by until she could get on her feet.

After I left for college, my mom started working as a nurses aide in a retirement home. She loved that job. Somehow, she was able to buy a house and raise my two brothers still at home. She lived in that home until the day she died.

My mom loved her boys with a ferocity that would shame other parents. She made sure we had everything we needed - clothes, food, a roof over our heads. Her pride prevented her from taking any government assistance to help make ends meet.

At my mom’s funeral, my brother said the greatest testament to her was raising three boys and none of us ended up in jail or “screwed up.” While the second part of that sentence is debatable (especially in my case), the sentiment rings true.

Who is to decide what the best family structure is for a child? My upbringing was tough and difficult - but somehow my amazing mother made sure no need went unmet. I’m sure she would have liked to have had a husband to help her raise three boys and give her companionship - but that wasn’t to be.

Yet, without that “traditional” family structure, we did just fine. I have a job doing what I love. My younger brother has a family of his own and a career, and my youngest sibling is living out his lifelong ambition as a soldier.

It’s cliche, but I wouldn’t trade any of the time I had with my mom, or her struggles, just to have a father in my house growing up.

It’s not what the family looks like that determines whether a child has a good upbringing. It’s the who the parents are. Love and determination and sacrifice are far better than making sure the family unit fits into a predetermined mold.

Here’s a story I like to tell about my mom. When I was in second grade, I had discovered the Star Trek television series. The group of friends I played with spent recess pretending to be Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, et al.

It soon became known among my group that one of the clothing stores in town was selling authentic Star Trek shirts. Not a replica t-shirt with an iron on Starfleet insignia, but an actual long-sleeve shirt with a black collar and cuffs and an embroidered badge on the breast.

As you could imagine, this was cause for much celebration and the race was on for everyone to get their own.

I told my mom that I would very much like to have a blue Starfleet shirt, and would like to wear it for picture day at school.

My mom explained to me that she couldn’t afford the shirt because she just didn’t have the money. That’s a message an 8-year-old isn’t ready to understand, especially when everyone else you know has one - and you are left out.

I remember the lobbying for the shirt went on for quite some time, always with the answer being “no.”

Yet, on the morning of school picture day, I climbed out of my bunk bed, went down the hall into the kitchen for breakfast, and found a blue science officer shirt waiting for me on the table.

I don’t know what bills went unpaid, or what things my mom had to sacrifice to make sure I got that shirt. All I know is that she made it happen for her boy.

That was my “traditional” family. And I am thankful every single day for that experience.