My mom and father met at the Kansas City Art Institute and married shortly after (realizing she was pregnant with me.) Apparently he was a brilliant artist—she admired his talents, and he had buyers for his art. But he placed his art above and beyond everything else. Including us. If he created a painting that was too large to get out of the house, he would knock a wall down, staple up some plastic and leave for a week to go sell it in Chicago. I was one year old.
When I was two and a half, we moved to one of the scariest neighborhoods in Denver. One week after the move, my mom understood that she was in a no-win situation with a mentally unstable husband, so she told him she was going to the store, left with 25 cents in her pocket and me on her shoulders. We walked five blocks to a payphone to call the only person she knew in Denver.
We crashed on her new friend's couch for three weeks, while mom worked at a Dairy Queen to save enough to buy a used car. That car drove us to Minneapolis. Mom enrolled at the University, and proceeded to earn the first college degree in her family while working four jobs—and raising me by herself.
The day after graduation, we drove to Bozeman, Montana where she earned her Master's degree while working another four jobs.
In third grade my mom bought me a camera—which was a huge deal, because I knew how hard she worked and how little money we had. I documented the shortcuts to school, the people I met each day. Later that year we lived in five different houses because the places we stayed in were one by one condemned and bulldozed. I was standing outside the three-story apartment building called “The Stacks” with my mom as a wrecking ball took the front of our building off. On the third floor, a guy named Michael laid there on his bed, at the edge of where the floor now dropped a couple hundred feet. I knew Michael because I liked his three legged cat named Tripod. As he lifted his head off of his pillow and looked over the edge of the floor that used to have a wall, he had a sleepy, but clearly surprised look on his face.
I took a photo.
I spent my childhood in and around art studios, hanging with artists, janitors, teachers, and students, while my mom worked on her projects. When I was in sixth grade, while at married student housing my mom met a new friend who lent her a couple dollars and skirt suit for a job interview. She got her first teaching job at the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Northern Montana. I was the only white kid in the school and got beat up three times a week. I moved there playing cello, and left lifting weights, swearing off anything artsy forever. It didn’t last. Rocky Boy was a place where we were never sure if we were safe, but knew we had each other—I grew up quickly there, and learned what racism felt like.
My mom pushed through all of this with tenacity, resilience and unwavering determination. She is the model of “anything is possible with will power.” With what I experienced in her presence, and with everything she accomplished against all odds, I always knew that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. I learned that “no” was only a temporary stop on the way to a “yes.” I have so much respect for single parent mothers, who by default must find, unleash, and harness their inner warrior, peacemaker, dreamer, and doer.
“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.” —Maya Angelou
We “weren't supposed to make it.”
Thank you for your inner warrior, mom.