Sheila and Mom

Today is Mother’s Day, and, as much as I enjoy being celebrated for being a mom, the day is bittersweet for me—as it is for most of us who have lost our moms. The loss of your mother brings both a unique and universal sorrow.

When I was a little girl, there was a tradition on Mother’s Day. At church, carnations were available for all the women. Those whose mothers were still alive got a red carnation, and those whose moms had died got a white one. As a child, I never thought about how that would feel—to get a white carnation. I could not have imagined.

This September, my mom will have been dead for fifteen years. Even though so much time has passed, and I’ve written about her death, it is still incomprehensible to me. As I grow older, I miss Mom in different ways. So much has happened that I’d like to share with her—things about me and about my life—things about my kids. I still have her name and phone number in my contact list.

It’s true what they say about how much more we appreciate our parents as we grow up and navigate being parents.  More and more I realize what I put Mama through. How she supported me, even when I made appallingly bad decisions. How she cheered me on and was happy for me, even when what I was doing (or where I was going) scared her to death. How she sacrificed so much for me, even when it must have cost her dearly. Everything I know about being a mom, I learned from her. From Mama, I learned the true meaning of unconditional love.

I also realize, more and more, how much I’m like her. Not only my face in the mirror—the shape of my mouth and my green eyes. Also, my quick and sometimes inappropriate laughter, that often gets me into trouble! I still have Daddy’s restless, gypsy soul, but I have Mama’s steady sensibility. I have her staying power—both in my career and in my relationships. Since I was named for Mom and go by my maiden name, we even have the same name. And, we shared a passion for writing.

I would love to talk to Mama about writing. She and I both were “late-bloomers.” And we both had dabbled in it early-on—short poems, half-page ponderings. Mom got serious when she was in her fifties. She started taking classes at her local community college and enrolled in writing workshops. Mama wrote personal essays, short stories, and poems, and even submitted on rare occasion. I remember her joy when her poem, Rejection, was published in the January 1984 issue of Cat Fancy magazine.

Mom's community college ID
Mom’s community college ID

Over the years, I read some of her work, but not a lot. Despite the positive feedback she got from her teachers, publication of her poem, and honorable mention in a competition, Mama never believed in her own talent enough to share her words with many others—even me. I first wrote East of Mecca as a screenplay in the early 90’s, so she was able to read it in that format, but I never got to share it with her as a novel. And the greatest volume of my work has been written in the years since her death.

Among Mom’s belongings that I still have, are pages and pages of her writing. Personal essays and short-stories. Half-filled notebooks of prose and poetry. Journal entries in which she examined her life and relentlessly questioned the worth of her words. Even scraps of paper with brief quotes and the notes she kept as reminders of what she wanted to write about— someday. The same kinds of scraps of paper I collect.

Mama and I shared both a passion for writing and the pervasive self-doubt that plagues even the most accomplished writers. (Anne Lamott being the perfect example!) But I’m different from my mother, in that I’ve dared to go public with much of my work. So, on this Mother’s Day, in honor of my mom, I am posting two of her pieces—her poem, Rejection, and a personal essay, The Red House, which is one of my favorites. I hope you like them, and I think she would be pleased.

Mother’s Day is bittersweet for me, but, for many, it is the most emotionally loaded holiday of the year—for all kinds of reasons. If you are being celebrated today, and/or celebrating a special woman in your life, I wish you joy. If this is a painful day for you, for whatever reason, I wish you peace.


Rejection  (Sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”)

‘Twas time to oust the tired old year

And welcome in the new

I planned our evening with such care

A quiet rendezvous.


I served him all his favorite food

And poured myself Chablis

We shared one chair, a loving mood,

My dark-haired friend and me.


He snuggled close — I felt content

And so, I thought, did he.

As madness swept the continent

We watched the revelry.


I’d known he was the roving kind,

But surely New Years’ Eve

He’d put rambling out of mind,

And wouldn’t want to leave.


Well, wishing doesn’t make it so,

No matter what they say.

With yawn and stretch, he rose to go

Meowed, then walked away.


The Red House

Behind a grove of sugar-berry trees, barely visible from the red clay street, sat the house I lived in when I was very young. The address was 110 Flamingo Drive and the adults called it “the old Sinclair place.” My brothers and I called it the “red house” for it was red, barn-red with white windows.

Except for its color it was an ordinary house much the same as most of its neighbors. Five rooms and bath, not arranged for beauty or convenience, just for shelter.

When I look back to my childhood, it’s the red house I remember and particularly the porch that extended across the full width and down one side. You might think of that porch as a forerunner of today’s family room. Much of my early life as I recall it was spent there. It was the scene of happy times, sad times, triumph and defeat.

By day the porch was our playground. Mother kept the gray floor washed and waxed. Brother and I played train and polished the floor at the same time, pulling each other back and forth on an old army blanket.

The highest side of the porch was a perfect launching place from which to take off in an old tire hanging by a rope from one of the trees.

On the side porch, between the door to the back hall and the back steps, was the permanent home for two paper-doll families. My friend, Marydel, and I spent many hours there. A wallpaper sample book provided material for furniture as well as room partitions. When we tired of playing with the paper-dolls, we put them to sleep on their wallpaper beds and left them.

Charlie’s red tricycle was as much a part of the furnishings as the two heavy rockers and the padded swing Daddy had fashioned from two iron cots. That trike was there a long time before it was ever ridden. Charlie had had Polio or Infantile Paralysis as it was called back then. Every day Mother put him on the tricycle seat and sat on the floor before him urging him to pedal. At first he cried and said, “I can’t” but Mother insisted. Once when Charlie was howling in protest, Daddy came out on the porch and said, “Emma, leave him alone, you know he can’t do it. He’s cripple.”

Mother whirled around and snarled like a wild dog protecting her pup, “By God, he will do it! He is not cripple! I won’t let him be!” And she didn’t. The practice sessions went on with Mother commanding over and over, “Push, Charles, push” as she held the pedal in place. When he finally managed to force the pedal forward, Mother grabbed him up and hugged him. Then with tears streaming down her face she said, “That’s my big boy! I knew you could do it!”

It still pains me to remember sitting on the top step crying while Daddy tried to explain that he was my stepfather and that my natural father had been killed shortly before my birth. The well-meaning aunt who told me my father was dead couldn’t possibly have known the effect that knowledge would have on my relationship with the only father I ever knew. Poor Dad. I’m sure I hurt him by my reaction. At five I just couldn’t understand. I jerked away from him and ran sobbing to my hideout under the back steps.

On summer evenings after supper and after Charlie was in bed, Mother, Brother and I escaped the heat by gently swinging back and forth. The air was sweet with honeysuckle and the night sparkled with stars and lightning bugs. Mother’s voice blended with the summer sounds of locusts, crickets, and frogs as she sang songs so beautiful and so sad, a lump would rise in my throat and tears would well up in my eyes.

I can’t remember wondering then why Daddy never joined us on the porch at night.