Book Excerpt

Book excerpt: ‘What My Mother Gave Me’

May 11, 2013 

In honor of Mother’s Day, we share this essay, “The Gift Twice Given” written by Judith Hillman Paterson, from “What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.” Algonquin Books, 2013.

“Your mother is dead. Forget about it.” Said or unsaid, the message was clear. Forget her and your life as it used to be.

My fourth-grade teacher told the others my mother had died that summer. They were to be nice to me but not mention it. I remember nothing about either the first day of school that year or my birthday. No presents. No cake. I remember loneliness, confusion, and my father’s devastating grief. My life depended on him – a dead man walking.

He soon married my stepmother, Dot, the war widow of a distant cousin. I loved my father, a depressive alcoholic with a scary temper, and was as bonded to him as if I had come out of his body instead of my mother’s. Dot wanted to fix what ailed us. I missed my mother and withdrew into books and the rolling landscape around the house my parents had built in the country outside Montgomery, Alabama.

I was the oldest child of four. Five, if you count the brother who died after three days when I was four, leaving an ever-festering wound at the heart of our family. My sister Jane had been born a year and two days after me. Momma was already sick even then. Jane did not like school or rolling hills. She was a witty, reckless girl who’d say anything to get attention. Out of the blue, she’d call out “Momma” or “our brother who died” like some oracle child fetching lost souls from the deep.

She’d get louder and louder until Daddy exploded and left the house and Dot unloaded a tirade of vitriol on my triumphant sister. I froze every time and either said nothing or growled between my teeth: “Damn it, Jane. Shut up. Now look, he’s gone. He’ll drink. He’ll kill himself in the car. Dot will be scared till he gets back, and then she’ll be mad.”

How are children to grieve in such a household? One parent in the grave and the other half-crazed with guilt and sorrow and four children to raise.

By the time Momma died, I’d been expecting it for years. She didn’t eat. She had migraines. She couldn’t sleep at night. She took sleeping pills, pain pills, Stanback, paregoric. She drank beer and slept in the daytime – or cried in her room. When she was hospitalized, for short and long periods of time, we stayed either with Daddy’s mother, Gram, or at home with a young black woman named Mary Willie Jackson, who sang show tunes and blues and taught us to fish with a pole and catch frogs with our hands. She told us about cities far away where she planned to go someday.

Mary Willie was still in high school when she started staying with us. Gram thought she had “big ideas” and never did “a lick of work around the house,” but Momma was crazy about her and so were we. After a few years, she married a soldier named Leroy who was stationed at the air base. Leroy stuck his chest out and stood so straight I thought the buttons would pop off his uniform. “Uppity,” Daddy said, narrowing his eyes. A threat to our household.

Mary Willie got dressed up and went off with Leroy sometimes, but she always came back. She’d never leave us, she said. Leroy was just a man and didn’t we know a man is “a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll lead you to sing the bluuuues in the night”?

Momma was seriously addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs by the time our doomed brother was born and died. Daddy blamed her. She had a breakdown, left on the train, and said she wouldn’t be back. You’d think that would have been the end of it, but Daddy went and got her.

A few months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. My father wanted to fight for democracy. Momma said she’d die if he left her. My second sister, Joan, was born the following September, as puny as our dead brother had been. With undeveloped lungs and an exposed thymus gland, she came home without a name, not expected to live. She lived anyway and grew up to be an odd child with developmental delays and a spirit so generous it put us all to shame.

Daddy joined the Construction Battalion of the navy (the Seabees) and got ready to go to Lido Beach on Long Island for training. If you ask me, he had good reason to fly the coop but he was also patriotic. We were to stay in a rented house in town where Gram, Mary Willie, and Momma’s Aunt Bessie could help out.


Momma lasted only a few months before she broke down again, thinking she was dying and threatening suicide unless we could join Daddy in New York. Off we went on the train with Gram, Mary Willie, and Momma, who talked the conductor into letting Mary Willie sit in the whites-only coach, saying she was needed to look after Joan. All aboard, chickens. This ain’t the Chattanooga Choo Choo. We headed for Nuuu Yaaawk!

We got a house on Long Beach beside a canal. Daddy came home a lot at first. Jane and I went to a progressive school in a little bus with other children and played in snow for the first time. Gram helped us get settled. Then she went home. Aunt Bessie came and fought with Momma over the pills she took and read stories to Jane and me. She took us to the Bronx Zoo and to the city to buy winter coats at Best & Company. Then she went home. My uncle who was in the army and my aunt and my cousin came for a few days. Mary Willie was with us most of the time. Our first months in New York were both an extension of home and a big adventure.

Everybody knew the Allies planned to invade France. Nobody knew when or where. Daddy was too busy to leave the base. Gram and Aunt Bessie were gone. Mary Willie left for a few days with Leroy before he went overseas. Momma drank. And drank and drank. She slept so long and hard I had to check to be sure she was breathing. We stopped going to school and never went back.

Until then, I had not realized my mother was truly unable to care for us. Joan was almost two, but very small. She wasn’t potty trained, couldn’t walk, and still ate baby food. I had a phone number to call friends of Daddy’s but I thought he’d be mad if I did. One day, Momma got up and said, “Don’t light the stove,” then went back to bed. Somehow we looked after Joan. I learned to pray sitting at the window waiting for Daddy to come home. Finally, he did. Mary Willie came back, but Momma kept drinking and sleeping.

Then it was spring and Momma was pregnant. A doctor said unless she stopped drinking, the baby would die like our brother or be sickly like Joan. Daddy went to France after D-day, and we went back to Montgomery, and a neighborhood filled with playmates. Though I was coming up on my eighth birthday, I had yet to attend a full year of school.

Prior to that year, I remember my mother mainly as a temperamental, girlish invalid, too preoccupied with her own anguish to relate to her children. My first eight years are nearly empty of memories of any homemaking or mothering on her part. No bathing or dressing or cooking or feeding or playing or reading or singing or dancing.


Now, in that little house with Daddy gone, Mary Willie there, and many of my mother’s friends in town for the duration of the war, my mother stayed mostly sober and functional for the better part of a year and a half. I do not know what mysterious combination of will power, family support, and the grace of God enabled her to do it.

For the first time in my life, she looked after me. She tended to things. She took me with her to the gift shop where she drank tea and rented novels. We went Christmas shopping and wrapped presents, doing the ordinary things mothers do with their children. For the first time, I experienced my mother’s love as daily life rather than an abstraction.

She read to me, watched over me, gave me my first birthday party when I turned nine, paid attention to my friends, and was unduly proud of how fast I caught up in school. Though her own adolescent anxieties had caused her to drop out of three high schools before calling it quits, she loved helping me with homework. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table night after night with her legs crossed, one foot swinging, a cigarette in one hand and the script in the other, teaching me my part in a school play.

Occasionally, she and Mary Willie took us to see the monkeys at Oak Park and to throw peanuts at Polly, a parrot that had once belonged to her family. Polly knew Momma’s name. If we tried hard enough we could get her to screech, “Emily . . . Emily . . . Polly want a cracker . . . Emily . . . Emily.”

When her own mother died the next summer in Montgomery, Momma and I spent two days cleaning out her mother’s antique-cluttered apartment. I’d heard tales of Momma’s girlhood athletic prowess, but I’d never before seen her do work of any sort. Her skill and energy surprised me. We sent the furniture off in a van and took home two leather trunks filled with scrapbooks, clippings, fur coats, and flapperish dresses and shoes.

“I just have to keep these; they have Knoxie written all over them,” is all she had to say about her neglectful and self-indulgent mother who preferred to be called by her given name.

I saw that beneath the childlike invalid Momma had seemed to be, there lay a lively and capable woman. I loved being alone with her and helping her do things.


Those months back in Montgomery transformed my relationship with my mother as magically as if we had been characters in a fairy tale set free of bewitchment. She gave me all she had to give – and I took it, as greedy and unthinking as a suckling pig.

My brother Jim was born healthy in January 1945. The war ended in August. Momma had already begun drinking intermittently by the time Daddy returned in November.

Some say a drinking friend tempted her to it. Some say that’s just what addicts do. Or was there something in the prospect of isolation in the country and the return of my father she just couldn’t face?

Despite interruptions, Momma’s attempts at sobriety and our closeness continued. Daddy had been told that her drinking could kill her, and that she’d never be able to stop unless he stopped with her. They tried and failed, tried and failed, and by the next August she was gone. Your mother is dead. Forget her.

Soon Mary Willie was gone. Forget her, too. Gone because she belonged to the past that included my mother. Willie had her own way of doing things. She talked about Momma. She let us run wild. We kissed her on the mouth. She had to go.

Gone. Nobody said she wouldn’t be back. She’d always come back before. “When is Willie coming back?” “Where is Willie?” I suppose I eventually stopped asking. I don’t remember.

A few months (or was it years?) later, I overheard Daddy tell Gram, “Leroy wrote from Detroit asking to borrow a hundred dollars. I sent it. Don’t tell Dot.” Gram gave a disapproving snort. I pretended not to hear.

And so I went on, had a growth spurt, made friends, excelled in school, and seemed to forget. At home, I got along well enough minus occasional spells of despair and outbursts of temper.

But I didn’t forget Momma. I just didn’t think about her. When scraps of memory floated by – which they regularly did – I’d wince and bat them away like gnats before my eyes. Remembered emotions grew shadowy, unfelt, and unattached to time. Not forgotten, not repressed, just pushed aside. Daddy rarely said my mother’s name. Nobody spoke it in his presence. The word Emily filled me with foreboding.


After I married and had children, I’d sometimes be surprised by a phrase, a gesture, or a tone of voice that seemed to come not from me but from Momma or Willie or some combination of the two. Saying “dahlin’ ” or “sugah” in Momma’s way or “gal” or “chickin” in Willie’s. Momma’s humming, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill” or Willie’s “Man got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.”

One day my nine-year-old daughter, Beth, returned from playing at the home of her friend’s grandmother and said to me, “Kathy’s grandmother’s name is Emily. She told me to call her Emily.”

“That was my mother’s name.”

“What?”

“That was my mother’s name.”

“I thought Dot was your mother.”

I was stunned. How in the world had I managed to wipe out the first decade of my life – including every trace of my mother’s existence? It was the same number of years that Beth and I had been daughter and mother. No photographs. No treasured objects. No favorite stories. Not a word.

Beth had no idea that her blood grandmother had ever existed. Neither did her brother. Jane’s children also didn’t know. Even my volatile sister had been silenced.

Things did not go well for my father’s children. By 1980, all of us were divorced. I knew how to work and ignore disappointment. I knew how to love only in part. I did not know how to grieve. After my divorce, I moved to Washington, D.C. It was around that time that I began to think about my mother and the troubles in our family.

I asked Daddy to help me find Mary Willie. He said he didn’t remember Leroy’s last name, hadn’t heard from them in years. The next time I was home, he said he’d driven out the Selma Highway to where she’d lived in a colored settlement now called the City of St. Jude, which had welcomed the Selma marchers in 1965. The house was gone, the streets looked different, nobody remembered Mary Willie. I imagined Daddy, an old white man sick with lung cancer, going door to door in a black neighborhood. He used to know people out there. Not anymore.

He put his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, heaved a sob, got up and left the room. His sorrow overwhelmed me. I dropped the subject and set about making a living in Washington.

Daddy died in 1985. My forty-one-year-old brother died a year later. With the two great loves of her life gone, Dot lasted only a year and a half. My sisters were fighting their own addictions, and it fell to me to dismantle and sell the house our parents had built.

I divided its contents among family members before driving back to Washington with a carload of memorabilia, including the two trunks Momma and I had packed at Knoxie’s in the summer of 1945. I had written three books by then and enough articles to get tenured in the English Department at Auburn University in Montgomery, and be on my way to doing the same in the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. But until that summer, I had rarely written anything in the first person. Not me. Too personal. Too scary.

But the losses of a lifetime had caught up with me. And, before school started in the fall, I had begun a series of newspaper and magazine columns that drew on my family’s experience with alcoholism, mental illness, and grief. They were like nothing I had written before.


I spent the next ten years digging through family documents, interviewing lost relatives and friends, trudging from my house to the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and traveling across the Deep South, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and New York, trying to understand my family and the meaning of Momma’s death. It didn’t take long to locate the mighty river of depression, anxiety, and addiction that ran in her family. There was something else, too, harder to define – a certain lack of meaning in their lives or faith in themselves, some way in which they did not know, for sure, who they were.

After years of slogging through documents and archives, I began to see my family heritage as a microcosm of the bone-deep conflicts in the history of Alabama, the Deep South, and the country itself. Yet now and then, amid all the information and note-taking, I’d find myself possessed of full-blown scenes from my childhood, which I called “bubbles of memory.” Many of them came from that time with my mother during the war.

Slowly, those long-ago days began to shine like new gold in my mind as I saw how events were connected and how important that period had been to me. No matter what time of night or day a bubble appeared, I’d have to write it down – get out of bed and go to the computer, or grab the back of an envelope, or drive off the interstate into a McDonald’s and write on that thin paper they put on your tray. Bit by bit, that long-banished time fell into place and put my mother back into the story of my life.

I think now of those precious wartime months as the gift twice given. As a gift to my childhood, Momma’s devotion at that time strengthened my sense of my own worth and enabled me to survive and go on without her. Forty years later, the memory of that gift – and the loss of it – brought her back to me in a way that could at last be shared and grieved.

Momma getting a parrot to talk. Momma at the kitchen table teaching me my part in a play. Momma scrubbing Knoxie’s apartment and packing the trunks.

I remember. I had a mother. She loved me.

“The Gift Twice Given” by Judith Hillman Paterson, reprinted with permission from “What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.” Algonquin Books, 2013.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service