I had an exceptional mother.
Yes, I’m aware everyone says that, but let me make my case before you write this off as another overly sentimental Mother’s Day piece. I’m not even sure why I chose to write this. I’ve been in tears for days trying to finish this piece, so it certainly isn’t for fun. Maybe because I’m scared that no one will know who she was, or what she went through, and her strength in the face of extreme loss. And how her resilience was almost miraculous considering what life constantly threw at her. Or perhaps I’m writing this because I miss her like mad. I’m not exactly sure. What I do know is every person I tell my mother’s story to, and hence the story of my childhood, I’m met with, “Oh my God, your poor mother” or “It’s amazing she didn’t crumble” and often, “That must have been heartbreaking for all of you…”
My mother’s name was Veronica Keebler, then Veronica Hamilton after she married my father. Those who knew her knew she was kind to a fault, gave of herself until it hurt, and would always lend a sympathetic ear to her friends and family. Perhaps she was kind because she had been through so much tragedy herself, but I suspect she was that way her entire life.
She was the oldest of 5 children, and the only girl. She became a second mother to her brothers and took care of them her whole life, my brother and I witnessed this through our entire childhood. Our uncles in Miami would show up at our house on holidays with entire bags of clothes that needed mending and she would do it happily. (I can’t even imagine that. I would throw the bag out the door after I stopped laughing. But my mom was so much nicer than me…) She even let our uncle that became an alcoholic after Vietnam live with us for years because he was unable to take care of himself. Needless to say that caused a tremendous strain on our family dynamic. I don’t believe that every choice she made was the best one, or that they are choices that I would make, but one thing is clear: she cared deeply for everyone in pain.
My family was uber Catholic. Pope and Kennedy pictures all over our walls Catholic. My parents campaigned for Kennedy, asked the family priest if they could use birth control, and made sure my brother and I went to Catholic school. My mother came from a large family and wanted nothing more than a large family herself. I am the youngest of 7 children, unfortunately however, I grew up only with my much older brother and often felt like an only child because of our age gap. My other siblings all had a condition called Angelman Syndrome and before I was 20, 2 of them had died.
As the youngest, and an unplanned child, I was last to the family. By the time I was a kid, all I knew was my brother, my sisters having been institutionalized by the time I was two. I also had another brother, Christopher, who died when I was very young. My older brother, Mike, however, grew up in the midst of chaos and my heart still breaks thinking of what he went through as a young child. I learned that other mothers in our Miami neighborhood told their children not to play at our house because they might catch something. The ignorance was staggering.
By the time I was 12 we had moved and my early childhood was not like my brother’s. My childhood also wasn’t easy by any means. My parents were both broken in so many ways it was palpable, and my dad was completely emotionally checked out. My brother and I, who were the only 2 of 7 siblings not to have or carry Angelman Syndrome, both grew up in a home torn apart by ignorance and and tragedy.
My brother, my mom and me, 1980
My mother told me years later no one knew what was wrong with my sisters. They looked normal, but never developed mentally past the age of 2 or 3. My mother also told me she would break down crying every night wondering what she was doing wrong. I can not even imagine what that pain must be. It utterly destroys me to imagine her, a young mother, with 4 children and not having any idea that there is a problem, and all the while being blamed by everyone around her. There are no words to express the pain I feel thinking of her suffering through those years. At that time, people in the neighborhood, my father’s mother and anyone who mattered in my mother’s life had decided that my mother was either an unfit mother, or had abused them, and it was her fault that my siblings were developmentally disabled. This was the 60s and nothing was known of Angelman Syndrome. In fact, my family was one of the main case studies to understand what was going on from a genetic standpoint. Doctor Angelman came from England to Miami to meet my mother and work with our family.
I believe this prosecution made my mother acutely aware of people who have suffered because of ignorance. As I grew up, I saw my mom talk passionately about civil rights, rights for the handicapped, and took care of all my odd teenage friends that had been kicked out or ran away from their own broken or abusive homes. My mom never saw their tattoos or Mohawks, she saw the kind, hurt kid in the chewy center. My mom was an outsider, she was one of them, she just did it wearing a floral sweater and sensible shoes.
My mother’s empathy knew no bounds. My uncles, her brothers, were bitter and quite racist and would argue at every holiday function, and my mom would sit there and say nothing. She loved everyone. When I went through my overly-sensitive teenage years and was full of anger, and would yell and cry, she still treated me kindly and tried to see the good through my misguided rage. She knew that my father was unable to reach out to me and I was the poor kid in my class (there on a scholarship) of rich private school kids. She knew why I was sad and understood my pain rather than taking it personally.
And she loved my father, in spite of the fact that he failed her on so many levels. I often saw her crying, or terrified because bills wouldn’t get paid or because he’d be missing when she needed him. I saw her love my brother, who in his own way checked out from our family, he wouldn’t call or see her for months and she’d call me when I lived in Europe so sad because she felt cut out of his life. But she wasn’t angry, she just missed him. I think my brother and I have taken years to fully comprehend what our childhood was and in some ways still are. It was a tough one, it was unstable, and it was harrowing. We were even homeless for a month- my father unable to hold a job (an engineer who graduated from The University of Florida) after his nervous breakdown. I think losing 3 kids and seeing your wife torn to pieces might do that to anyone, in retrospect.
One of the many ways I keep my mother’s memory alive by having her heckle me on Twitter. So? My mother never, EVER cursed and when I was little she told me I have the mouth of a truck driver…I’m so sorry mom…
And what did I witness my mother do throughout my childhood in spite of all of that? In spite of what would cause some to become alcoholics, or to run away, or perhaps numb the pain with drugs?
I saw my mom make me dinner every night while working as a teacher’s aide. It was often her that was the only one able to hold down a job. I saw her get numerous awards for her outstanding performance in education. I saw her make my Halloween costume every year. I saw her volunteer for everyone of my girl scout functions. I saw her teach me to read and make sure I was in advanced classes because I was always ahead of the curve. I saw her teach me to cook and sew and make a million wonderful craft projects.I saw her take care of dozens of pets and have empathy for all living creatures. I saw her bring birds in the house that had fallen out of nests to nurse back to health. She even saved a baby squirrel and raised it one winter then took it to a college zoo to live there. I saw her see to it that in spite of our financial problems, she made sure my brother and I had the best education. I saw her take care or her brothers, my father, and her children with unwavering dedication never stopping to say, “Why me?” She was the strongest person I ever met, and suspect that I will ever meet…
The last memory I have of my mother was her bringing me breakfast when I visited her the day before her death. I can see her walking towards me with her unassuming smile. I remember even the day before she died she told me, “You were the child I waited for, the one I can talk with. You made my life a joy, Beth”
No, Mom, it was you that made my life a joy and I miss you so very much. Because of you and what you taught me, I can be a loving mother to my own son…
Of course I saw her break down a few times. I saw her yell at my father every single week because we were always late to church. I saw her cry for days when they lost their house, unable to make the mortgage payments. I saw her yell at me when I said, “I don’t want to have my cousins around my son.” My cousins have drug problems and I want no part of it, but she just wanted everyone together. I still believe she was wrong about that, but it’s so sweet that she still loved everyone in spite of their flaws. And I saw her cry when her brothers made fun of her weight. I used to yell at my uncles on her behalf, because she never seemed to be able to stick up to them…
My mother had two very bad habits: she smoked and she ate her emotions. And it was because of the smoking and excess weight that she died young. She was only 65 and she had a fatal heart attack. I used to yell at her for smoking. I would beg and cry and scream at her to stop, but it was a habit that she simply could not give up. As a mother myself now, with a very stable home, only one son who is healthy, and a loving husband, even I feel stressed so much of the time…I can understand why my mother had a couple crutches. I get that. I sincerely do. I am in no way standing in judgment…I just miss her and wish she was here to get to know my son.
For better or for worse, I am not my mother. I have the ability to say no to people when I feel my limits have been reached and I often lack the desire to try to have empathy for people who are hateful or racist, or are just a huge pain in the ass. I do have empathy, though, maybe just not as much as my mom. I do find myself wanting to help people, to save animals, and to try to understand why people do the things they do, rather than making snap judgments. I try. I don’t always succeed, but the desire is always there. When I feel overwhelmed I think of my mother and it gives me strength to go on.
If Veronica Keebler Hamilton kept going, after everything she went through, after a life time of heart break, I have no excuse but to suck it up and keep on going.
I love you and miss you every day Mom. I owe you everything that I am. I see you in my son and I see you in me when I try to have patience when he pushes me to my limits. I see you in the birds that fly overhead and I see you in the faces of people who need a kind word. And I see you more and more when I look at my own reflection in the mirror….
And for that, I am eternally grateful.