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Never the Same
Becoming Me
Without My Mother
Denise Turney

I am thirty-five years old. I am divorced. I am African American, and the mother of an eight-year old son. I am an administrator with one of the world's leading financial investment firms. I am a magazine and newspaper freelance writer. I am a novelist. I am a motherless child.

At an age when most little girls are learning to braid their hair, my mother died. The news that my mother was dead changed my life. The change was irreversible. Life dealt me a tough hand and pushed me into the world to struggle alone as a motherless daughter. This fate would cover each of my memories.

Self-Portrait as Saint Lucy Memories are like shadows. They follow us everywhere we go. Some memories are clear, as though they were created yesterday rather than more than two decades ago. My clearest memory is of my father pulling alongside a curb and calling out to my brothers, sister and me while we walked to school. It was icy cold outside, a brutal winter day in Dayton, Ohio. Though our shoulders shook and our lips quivered under the weight of the hard, cold wind, my siblings and I were happy, carefree children. Not one of the four of us was more than three years apart. Our love for each other extended beyond blood. We were best friends.

Jefferson School was one block away when our father pulled alongside of us. Smiles broke out on our faces when our gazes crossed his mahogany brow. "Get in the car," he told us. Moments later he delivered the news. Because he was struggling to filter the pain of our mother's death through his own life, he told us to return to school. I spent the day crying.

Somehow our lives maintained a high level of normalcy. My paternal grandmother made herself available to us in ways only a mother would. She cooked our dinners. She made certain we wore clean clothes. She helped us with our homework.

My father never missed a day of work during this time. He was a pillar of strength until that first Christmas without my mother. The tree, silver and artificial, was up. It stood in a corner of the living room. We laughed, played and sipped eggnog. The phonograph was spinning. The Temptations sang Silent Night. When they got to the words in the song about the mother and her child, a knot of emotion formed in my throat. I swallowed hard and stared out the living room window. I missed my mother. She would never hold me again, and I knew it. That song continues to hold a special place in my heart. It no longer creates sadness within me. Instead, it pulls sweet memories of my mother to the front of my mind. I smile when I hear Silent Night being sung by The Temptations.

Growing up without a mother caused me to miss out on lessons other daughters learn through their mother's examples, through their mother's style of dress, the way their mother walks across a room or throws her head back and laughs at a story or joke she thinks is funny. When I was in junior high, and especially during my high school years, other girls began to point out how I was different from them. Although my hair reaches to my butt, I rarely wore my hair down. I never wore make-up. I dressed in T-shirts and jeans because I was a tomboy, and also because I didn't trust my fashion skills. No one ever taught me how to accessorize my outfits, how to dress with style, with flair. Even though I am heterosexual, I held very little interest in boys. I didn't attend the prom. I was too afraid to go on a date for fear that I wouldn't know how a woman was supposed to act while she was out with a man. It seemed everything a growing woman is supposed to know how to do (flirt, date, dress, cut and style her hair, etc.), I didn't know how to do.

This caused me to have a small and tight circle of girlfriends. Yet, despite my girlfriends' laughter and light-hearted stories about how we would be friends forever, I felt uncomforted. Despite our vows to talk on the telephone every day for the rest of our lives, I felt alone. Despite my girlfriends' promises that we would never date ugly boys while we described how we would fall in love with the most handsome men and live happily ever after-- despite that richness that grew in my childhood, I felt different and singled out. Years passed before I met another woman with whom I felt totally at home, another woman who did not have a mother. I was fully grown myself by that time.

That feeling of isolation went like a stake into my heart. I hated Mother's Day. I lied to classmates when they asked me what I was buying my mother for the holiday. I smiled and told them, "Some perfume," or, "A pair of shoes," or I told them I was going to buy my mother, "A dress." That shame for being a motherless child shadowed me into adulthood. That shame drove me to seek out other women who were without their mothers. It caused me to value my grandmother with an increasing passion. Today my grandmother represents "Mommy."

Every woman needs a mother. Whether she is a strong and loving grandmother, a doting aunt, or a woman from the community who refuses to turn her loose to the world unarmed with a woman's good and endearing and motherly love-- we all need to be with our mothers.

In 1991 I gave birth to my son and became a mother. Today he is eight years old. He has had me longer than I had my mother. Watching my son grow up, I realize how very young I was when I lost my mother. My son is but a child. So too was I when I became a woman who was forced to move through life doing all I did without my mother.

Being a motherless child has caused me to have a deep, abiding appreciation for those of us who are mothers. The role a mother plays in a child's life cannot be fully measured. A mother's love reaches deep into a child's soul. A mother's love drapes each of her child's thoughts with love and tenderness. I am grateful that my father learned how to deal with the pain of losing my mother. Not too many years ago, he told me it took him a year to learn to sleep alone after my mother died. Except for a three-year marriage to my former stepmother, all the years I was growing up, my father was a single parent. He did a magnificent job. It was through him that I acquired the skills I would need to love my own child.

As I look back over my life's personal history, I am grateful for many things. I am grateful for the strength and courage that is banked in my father. I am grateful for my aunts' and my grandmother's never ending love. I am grateful for my son and the smiles and laughter that adorn his presence. Most of all, I am grateful for my mother. Her life was short. Her love went to the heart of me. To this day, it rocks me, consoles me, encourages me, strengthens me, invigorates me and assures me that I am never without my mother.

Denise Turney has more than twenty years of writing experience. She is a single mother, a novelist, a short story writer and a magazine freelancer. On July 13 her new novel "Portia" debuted.

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Artwork "Self-Portrait as Saint Lucy" by Jennifer Linton
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