I vowed never to be like my mom, and I really meant it.

She was mean. The true definition of the word: unpleasant, sometimes even unkind.

Truth is, even into my 20’s, I wasn’t crazy about her.

I loved her, but I also tolerated her.

She had plenty of reason to be mean.

I wouldn’t come to terms with why she’d made my life so hard until many years later.

I’m not exactly sure when I began to understand her. It was long after having children of my own.

She wanted to give me a chance at a better life, and she did it the only way she knew how.

She ruled with an iron fist.

My mom saw a lot of hard times. Maybe more than most.

She was the only child born to a 13 year-old single mother in the 1930’s. She grew up during the Depression in rural Oklahoma, literally dirt poor.

She dropped out of school in the 8th grade, got married, and started a family.

She married a soldier who took her away from everything and everyone she ever knew. She had to figure it out. And, she did.

By the time she was 21, she’d been married five years and had five kids. She’d eventually have three more. She raised eight babies using cloth diapers and glass bottles.

Like most moms in those days, she stayed home. But, at 21 she had a house full of kids and concerns about putting food on the table and paying the bills. We always had food, a roof, electricity, and hot water.

She never wore a wedding ring. It never occurred to me they probably couldn’t afford one, and when they could, it probably didn’t matter anymore. She wore the same brown coat year after year after year.

My dad was a career soldier, and she prayed him through both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Much of the time, she was a single parent.

She traveled–in the U.S. and abroad–many times with eight children in tow, following my dad to new duty stations.

She mourned the deaths of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. She marveled when men walked on the moon, was thrilled when she got her first colored television set, and endured through the Civil Rights Movement.

She was colored, a Negro, Black and African American.

She acted thrilled every Mother’s Day, Christmas or birthday when we gave her the latest kitchen gadget or. . .  nothing at all.

The mother of eight children and wife to a U.S soldier, she was still refused service at restaurants, denied access to public pools, and couldn’t use a gas station restroom in Tennessee.

I knew all this growing up, yet I wasn’t mature enough to understand it in context, within the context of her life and how it impacted mine.

My life would never be as hard as hers was because of the choices she made for me.

Even though life was hard, she was a mom who showed up.

She was at every basketball game, every awards ceremony, Girl Scout ceremony, and parents’ night. She listened to me read. She listened to me count. She laughed at my jokes. (She still does.) Even when I didn’t, she believed in me.

She really believed in me.

I still didn’t fully appreciate her even though I cried in her arms after a breakup with my boyfriend in high school or when I cried in her arms when I felt like one of my own children had broken my heart.

It had never occurred to me I’d probably broken her heart, too.

Her feelings never occurred to me at all.

She’d barely had a chance to grow up herself. She was poor and Black, married a Buffalo Soldier*, moved more than eight times in the 30 year-span of his career, sent her own son off to war, and watched her children grow up and grow out of needing her.

I cried in her arms in the early years in my marriage. It never occurred to me she didn’t have any arms to comfort her in the early years of her marriage.

She’s like a vault. She can keep a secret. I’ve never heard her gossip about any of her children to anyone.

She introduced me to Jesus. She taught me to value relationships with my brothers and sisters, relationships she never had.

She taught me to be a staunch advocate for my children because nobody messed with her kids.

She taught me marriage is forever.

She’s been married for 65 years. It wasn’t 65 years of bliss, but she stuck it out. She knew what it was like to grow up without a father, and she didn’t want that for me.

When I take into account all she did for me and multiply it by eight, I’m baffled. I don’t know how she did it.

When I was 15, I was in high school, not pregnant and not married. At 21, I was in college, not raising five kids. I didn’t have my first child until I was almost 30.

I’ve never worried about putting food on the table or struggled to pay my bills. I’ve never been denied access to pools or restaurants.

It never occurred to me that many of the things I experienced during those years, she was experiencing for the first time, also: A wedding, high school and college graduations.

To her, my life must seem almost glamorous. Because of women like her, moms today will never have to endure what she experienced.

When I look at her now-the corners of her mouth permanently turned down with age–I remember that tired woman who got me up in the mornings. Took me shopping for school clothes, taught me the importance of being a lady, and tried to make every Christmas and birthday special.

My selfish perspective has changed through the lens of maturity. Now I see a mother’s heart whose compassion was sometimes blocked by fear.

This perspective has helped me come to terms with being raised by a mean mom.

I now realize because of her, I don’t have to be the same kind of mom she was.  She sacrificed to set me up to be any kind of mom I want to be.

She might’ve wanted something different out of life. But she took what she got and turned it into her dream. And, she realized it.

She gave me a better life than the one she’d had.

*Buffalo Soldiers were all Black units in the U.S. Army. They helped settle much of the American West until President Truman desegregated the Army in 1948.