Hard Lessons For a Mother To Pass On

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By Donna Britt
Friday, May 6, 2005

Eight decades ago -- before I existed or had any idea of what a mother was -- there was a little girl.

This is her Mother's Day story.

Weeks after her birth, the girl -- petite, prettier than she ever could believe -- was placed by her grandmother in a Philadelphia foster home run by a strict woman the child knew only as "Mom Stevens." Day after day, the girl anxiously awaited visits from a vivacious teenager who often stopped by. Without warning, the young woman would appear at the foster home door -- smiling, offering gifts, chatting with Mom Stevens before waving goodbye, calling, "See you next week!"

Sometimes, "next week" took a month. It wasn't until the little girl was 7 -- and had spent months in a hospital for near-fatal burns suffered in a terrifying backyard accident -- that she moved into her young visitor's home. As for the visitor's identity, "I knew that she was my mother," the girl -- Geraldine Britt, my mother -- recalls.

"But didn't know what 'mother' meant."

I know what it means. So on Mother's Day -- like all the moms who'll have brunch with their families and open presents from their children -- I'll remember:

How as children, my brothers and I celebrated the holiday by cooking breakfast for the cutest, hippest mom around. How eagerly she ate the French toast we either burnt or undercooked for her. How blessed we are to still have her around to honor.

Mom's own childhood memories won't be so joyful. As you've probably guessed, her mother -- Mom-Mommy, the grandmother I adored -- was an unwed mother. When Mom-Mommy's own mother discovered the pregnancy -- which Mom-Mommy insisted resulted from what is now called a date rape -- she spirited her youngest daughter away until my mother's birth.

By placing her newborn granddaughter in a home miles away from the infant's 19-year-old mother, Mom-Mommy's mother, whom most everyone called Nana, "was trying to help [Mom-Mommy] have a better life," Mom explains now. "She failed to realize when you take a child away from its mother, she doesn't bond with her." Mom says that's why the woman whom she repeatedly asked, "Mother, do you love me?" -- the one who always replied, "Yes, I love you, Geraldine" -- never quite convinced her.

"She tolerated me," Mom says now.

Some Mother's Day stories aren't pretty. I've twice written about baby mamas -- slang for unmarried mothers -- since the release of "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino's song by the same name. What subject is more vital than our children?

Yet I never connected Fantasia's anthem to a seldom-discussed chapter in my own family history -- until I recently heard Mom speaking to three high school students who'd inquired about her life. When she described Mom-Mommy -- an award-winning insurance agent, glamorous society matron, dentist's wife and church pillar -- as an "unwed mother," I froze.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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