Monday, February 6, 2012

Motherless Child

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / . . . Motherless children have a hard time / Motherless children have a, such a hard time / Motherless children have such a really hard time / Long way from home (Negro Spiritual)

Children who must grow to maturity without one or both parents walk a long hard road. The spiritual quoted above laments the conditions of slavery, of being snatched from one’s home and parents and of being sold away from one’s family, but for every child who loses the mother, the sorrowful song rings true.

Greg Harvey explains that “Experiencing the death of a parent is traumatic at any age, but it's particularly harrowing for young children. With the death of a parent, young children are deprived not only of the guidance and love that that parent would have provided as the children grew up but also the sense of security that the parent's ongoing presence in the home would have bestowed. More often than not, the child feels terribly vulnerable, especially when the death is accompanied by a relocation of the family” ( -the-death-of-a-parent-as-a-child.html).

I thought of the motherless child recently because a former student came to mind. Ruth (not her real name) joined an on-level English class that I taught and in response to my request that each student write about something he and she wanted me to know, Ruth revealed that she was nineteen, older than her peers, because she had dropped out of school the previous year. Her mother passed away late in the second semester of her junior year, and Ruth found her grief so large that she could not venture from the home. Her father was apparently a much older man than other fathers Ruth knew and poorly equipped to deal with a sad teenager. He left her alone while he worked and let her become the homemaker.

Always heavy, Ruth ate more during her fifteen months at home. She returned to her senior year barely able to squeeze into a school desk. In a private moment, I offered a chair and work table, but she dropped her eyes and shook her head in the negative. I too am heavy, as Ruth put it, so I understood her reluctance to make a show of being different.

Later, Ruth commented that heavy people are the nicest people in the world. She wondered why other people judge them so harshly. I didn’t have a consoling answer.

Ruth’s birthday happened to be the first to be celebrated that school year. I made small business cards featuring a cupcake, one candle in its center, next to blank space that I used to write in the student’s name. On the reverse side, I wrote a personalized birthday greeting for each student, often relying upon the one-page of information provided on the first day. A typical message might read: May your dream to become a doctor come true one day. Most students no longer remembered what they had written on that first day, and many thought I had the gift of prescience after they read the card. I just smiled when they asked, how did you know? and passed a single pack of sugarless gum to the birthday girl or guy.

When Ruth received her card and gum, she threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly, saying, Thank you. I didn’t think anyone would remember. Dad’s busy, and well, Mama used to bake a cake for me. When she stepped back, I saw tears in her eyes, but I assured her that her mother would want her to bake her own cake or buy one if she could--that her mother would not want her sweet daughter to be sad on her birthday. Ruth agreed and said she’d bake a cake for herself after school. She brought a piece to school the next day to share with me.

Ruth made it through that year. I can still remember her big letters suitable for wide-ruled, lined paper--not college-ruled. I recall her shy smile and how alone she was. I checked on her though and discovered that at lunch, she had two heavy friends with whom to share a table. I watched her smile in their company.

I wonder if Ruth could have been more at home if her mother had survived. I wonder if her ceiling would have been higher, her dreams bigger. I wonder the same about my own mother who grew up without her father. He wanted nothing to do with her even when he visited the town in which she and her mother lived. Mother had two step-fathers, each of whom drank too much. I wonder what a difference a complete family might have made.

Most of all, I wonder if my tiny contribution to Ruth’s life made a difference that year. I hope so, and I hope that all of us will reach out to the heavy, lonely kids in need of a parent because Hilary Clinton was absolutely right when she said: it takes a village to raise a child.