One day in the spring of 1958, a woman gazed silently at a black and white photograph. The picture was of a little girl kneeling in the snow, her arm around a black dog.
“Her name is Tina,” said the man who had handed her the picture. “She’s 7 years old. I love my daughter more than anything, but I can’t keep her. My wife…she isn’t Tina’s mother, you know? She resents having a reminder around of my other marriage. I had to send Tina back to my ex-wife, to keep her safe.” The man twisted the hat in his hands as he continued, “But Tina’s mother hasn’t had Tina with her for years; she’s remarried now with two kids and she…well, she’s emotionally unable to deal with another one. You see?” He swallowed hard before adding, “My daughter needs a home.”
The woman handed the photograph to her husband, who took it and studied it for several minutes before giving it back with a small smile. He said, “Well, honey, what do you think?”
The woman touched a finger to the image of the child smiling hopefully into the camera and then looked into the eyes of the little girl’s father. “Yes,” she said. “We’ll take her.”
The little girl in the photograph was me. And the woman, who agreed to open her heart and home to a child she’d never met, was my adopted mother. My new father, of course, played an important, loving part in this decision, but it was my mother who was willing to take on the full-time, thankless and often heartbreaking care of a previously abused child. Loving me would be a challenge for her from the very beginning.
In the first place, I didn’t want to be there and was heartsick at being taken away from my father who I loved desperately despite his refusal to leave the woman who was abusing me. Moreover, I had a natural distrust of women. The two in my life so far had either abandoned me or beaten me. In my mind, why should this new one be any different?
My new father had a much easier time of those turbulent first months; because he was gentle and quiet like my daddy, I bonded with him quickly. But when he went off to work every day, my mother was the one left alone to deal with a bitter, confused little girl.
The spring day in 1958, when I arrived on my new parents’ doorstep, I was in terrible shape, not just emotionally, but physically as well. I was malnourished, nearly 20 pounds underweight, had rickets and suffered from constant ear infections and bouts of bronchitis. It was Mom who sat by my bed all those nights, who rubbed my chest with Vicks and gave me my doses of cough syrup and antibiotics. She cooked me my favorite Lipton chicken soup and made me hot strawberry Jello to drink. And yet, as I recovered, it was Dad’s lap, not Mom’s that I sought for comfort.
Like many abused children, I was a bed wetter. It embarrassed me and I tried very hard not to, but several times a night, night after night, I would drench my bed. And several times a night, my mother would rouse from sleep to check on me. On finding me wet she would awaken me, change my bedding, wipe me down with a warm, wet washcloth and dress me in fresh pajamas. She would then kiss me and tell me, “It’s okay, sweetheart. It’s not your fault,” and put me back in bed. I eventually outgrew this humiliating disorder but I know it was at the cost of many hours of lost sleep on my mother’s part. I don’t think she ever heard a thank you from me for her patience, even though in the past I had been verbally and sometimes physically abused for my incontinence.
In the weeks and months to come, I tested my new mother’s love again and again.
When she asked me not to do something, I did it anyway. When given an order, I ignored it. When she attempted to discipline me, I would draw myself up to my full 46 inches; look her in the eye and say, “You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not my “real” mother,” words that years later, Mom confessed, had been like a knife in her heart. But she went on loving me anyway.
To help me make friends in my new school, she often arranged with my teacher to surprise my class with donuts. My new playmates would say, “Your mom is so cool!” I would glory in the attention, but I don’t remember ever thanking her.
I look back on those early days and shake my head at the endless, loving patience my mother showed. No matter how many times I hurt her feelings by refusing the affection she was so hungry to give, my mother never gave up. Night after night, she tucked me in and then sat beside me, stroking my head. “I love you, Tina,” she told me, over and over. “Other parents have to settle for whatever children are born to them, but I chose you. And I’m going to keep on loving you, no matter what.”
And one day, I finally believed her.
Mom’s been gone now for more than 30 years and I miss her more than I can say. I wish I could have her here with me one more time to tell her again how sorry I am for what I put her through in those early days, and to thank her for her unconditional love. Was she the best mother ever? Well, if being willing to bare her heart to a broken, homeless little girl is any measure, then yes, yes she was.