My mother is stubborn.
My father jokes that it’s the Polish in her (and me) that makes us clutch ideas so hard they fuse with our fingers and become permanent fists of stony resolve. This tenacity kept my mother with my father, kept her in church despite the disapproval of other women, kept her homeschooling me against everyone’s wishes and kept her focused with faith on the promise of the future. My mother is the kind of woman who will make this world a better place or die trying, and then come back and haunt the place until the job is done. She is physiologically incapable of giving up.
The problem is, she’s not invincible.
As I was settling into college life and trying to overcome the guilt I felt over the loss of my kitten and the loss of my mother’s car, I took solace in one thing: the knowledge that my mother’s lot was going to improve. She was going back to school with me.
My mother was enrolled in Ellis College, an online degree program offered by NYIT. She loved her correspondence courses, happily barricading herself in the room with the computer and writing creative papers that earned her accolades from the teaching staff. She was able to transfer in the credits from her hard-won Associate’s degree, so in a matter of a couple of years she was getting ready to graduate with her bachelor’s degree.
My mother’s parents hadn’t seen this kind of thing as a worthwhile pursuit. They paid for college for their four sons, but they offered her nothing. That wasn’t what girls in the late 1960s were supposed to be thinking about. A woman didn’t need to work, they reasoned.
My mom saw things differently.
She worked her way through her Associate’s degree in computer science, graduating in 1978. She loved her jobs, working at a bank where everyone supported her educational goals and celebrated with her when she announced her pregnancy with me. After I was born, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom, but she also taught computers to public-school kids while I was a toddler. The first computer in our house was a TANDY. I learned to use DOS when I was about six. My mother also worked as the bookkeeper for my father’s small business, which he’d started when I was born and was going strong throughout my childhood. These skills would later support her as an administrative assistant in hospitality.
In the second-to-last semester of her online degree program, a crisis drove her off course. The financial aid office at her college informed her that the administrator who was handling her account had failed to submit her paperwork on time. Suddenly, three courses from graduation, she found herself unable to register for her final semester unless she could pay the $6000 bill for the dropped semester. Although she fought the decision (after all, it hadn’t been her mistake in the first place), the office refused to budge. Lacking the resources to hire an advocate or the energy to continue arguing, my mother eventually put on her soldier’s mask and brushed it all aside. She would focus on work. She would take care of my sick father. God would open another door eventually, in His time.
I watched this happening with helpless open hands. I had just started college myself. I was wracked with guilt already for leaving. I will fix this thing, I vowed to myself fiercely. If I do nothing else in this life, I will help my mother go back to school. I will win back what was stolen from her.
But I was nineteen and broke, with one shot of making it in school. What was I going to do?
I committed myself to my own school work, but my heart ached at my mother’s silence. She smiled at me and said it was more important to her that I go to school right now, and she would find a way to go back later. I gritted my teeth, because I knew that this was an unfulfilled promise in the making. My mother was giving up her dream for mine, and I couldn’t accept that.
I presented my mother with my unofficial transcript at the end of my first academic year. I had a 4.0. It was a pitiful offering to the woman who should be walking in a graduation ceremony right now, but I wanted her to know that I had worked for her sake and would keep doing so. If nothing else, I could make her proud. She’d had a 4.0 too. I was only following her example.
As I press forward now, at the forefront of my mind is always how I am going to give back to my mother. She invested her life in mine and I want her to know that she is still valuable. She still matters. Her dreams count just as much as mine.
Hey mom, if you’re reading this, I love you.