“Hey Mom… It’s Friday. Can we stop for an ice cream?”
I was 5 years old.
It was a typical Friday for us. My mom had spent her morning cleaning other peoples’ houses, and I had spent my morning in kindergarten. We were driving home in our red Mitsubishi that had a habit of stalling when going up hills, and it couldn’t always be trusted to drive on flat ground either.
“Yes, I think we can do that.” She took a quick look in her purse and stopped for a second, “Natalie, I left my wallet at home. Do you have your purse? Check and see how much change you have. I will pay you back when we get home.” I picked up my little red polka dotted purse that perfectly matched my dress, and I quickly pulled out my change. We counted together, “5, 10, 20, 45, 70, 95, 1.20. Perfect! Exactly what we need,” she said. “Thank you mommy!” My mom responded, “You’re welcome my little Petunia.” Then, she turned the music up, and we went back to singing to our favorite Mariah Carey tape as we drove to the ice cream store.
A few months ago, my mom and I were on the phone reminiscing about those days many years ago when we were a two-person team against the world, and she brought up the ice cream story. I vaguely remembered it. I could picture my white and blue polka dotted dress and my matching purse. At that age, I wore dresses every single day. I hated pants, and I refused to wear them. I could picture driving in our little, unreliable car, my mom with her work out clothes that she used to clean in and her long dark hair in a high ponytail. As she told the story, she added some details that I was oblivious to at age five.
“When I looked in my purse, I had my wallet. There just wasn’t anything in it. I didn’t have a nickel to my name until I got paid the following week. You didn’t usually ask for much, so I wanted to try and get you an ice cream. I was just praying you had some change in that little purse you always carried.”
And, she added, “Do you remember when our refrigerator broke? We had to take everything out—the milk, the butter, and the juice and stick them all in the snow out in the backyard?” She started laughing and said, “You thought it was so cool that we were using the snow to keep our food cold.”
Back in those days, after my biological father disappeared and left us with a mountain of bills and a mortgage we couldn’t afford, we were broke. My mom used food stamps to buy food. I helped her clean houses to pay the bills. I rarely got new toys. We didn’t live this way for long. Thankfully, my mom met an incredible man who for all intents and purposes is my father. But, in looking back at those times, I am always amazed by how my happy memories override anything negative. I was never worried, or stressed, or scared. Sure, I was aware that my biological father wasn’t present, but I was accustomed to it. He had never been there. He was an absent father. I didn’t feel angry about it.
My mom never allowed those feelings to enter into my world. My mom protected my happiness. She guarded it like it was an invaluable gift. She kept a smile on her face. She laughed loud and hard often, and most importantly, she always found a way to make things work. She bought me the ice cream I asked for every now and then. She surprised me with a trip to the video store and 2 Twizzlers on my 6th birthday. She allowed me to have friends over to hang out all day long in the summer. Somehow, she even managed to have the freezer stocked with popsicles. Even though she didn’t “have a nickel to her name,” and even though we had to clean houses to pay the bills, and even though our milk was in the snow, I was a happy well-adjusted kid with aspirations and the self-confidence to accomplish them all.
My mother’s act of protecting my invaluable gift ended up being the most valuable present she could have ever bestowed upon me. On this Mother’s Day, I am truly grateful that I can say my childhood was filled with a special kind of abundance. Not the kind with lots of toys or trips, but rather pure, unconditional love and affection, laughter and joy.
Thank you to the most valuable mom who dedicated her life to making me feel like the most valuable daughter.
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