F. Scott Fitzgerald’s understanding of unhappy times is evident in his writing. I see it clearly in the quote: “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Those of you who have had this feeling know what he is describing: the times when, regardless of the weather forecast, it is dark and it is cold and you are alone. You feel low. And you doubt whether there is a reason to be.
Two times in my life I have experienced a “real dark night” of my soul. Two times I have doubted whether things really would be OK. The second time I had the responsibility of knowing that, regardless of my despair, my daughter depended on me to make everything work out.
During these periods, these dark nights of my soul, I searched for someone who had faith in me. Someone who believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that I could persevere, could come out the other side. As I raise my own daughter, I understand that I needed the cure that could only come from the nurturing touch of a mother’s love. Even so, during each of these times, my biological mother couldn’t help me.
My mother loves me and made many sacrifices for me. Some would say that, when everything is tallied, early on she sacrificed much of her life’s energy for me. Unfortunately, however, during each of the times when I was hopeless, she wasn’t able to help me. The first time she was in the most violent phase of an abusive relationship. The next time, although she hadn’t been diagnosed, she had suffered from dementia for several years.
There were many people who were kind to me during my dark nights. They know who they are. But there is one, one who stands alone. One who saved me. One who is my other mother. Even when I wanted to give up, she wouldn’t let me. She made sure I knew, explicitly or implicitly, that she felt unconditional love, that she had faith, that she knew I had worth, that she knew I could survive.
I met her when I was 14. She drove a blue station wagon and, when we went on speech and drama trips, a school bus. For a moment, imagine driving a school bus with twenty teenagers as passengers.
Her hair was short and crazy-curly. Sideshow Bob curly. When she was frustrated, she would sink both hands into her hair, pull it in different directions and make funny faces. She wasn’t quite 30 and I thought she was the coolest thing ever. She filled her eastern Kentucky classroom with pink flamingos. She spent what must have been a big chunk of a teacher’s paycheck on a pair of Timberland boots when I didn’t even know what Timberland boots were. She was dramatic and playful. In the photo attached to this post, she and a sixteen-year-old me are lighting birthday candles. No, it wasn’t her birthday, or my birthday or a classmate’s birthday. We were just lighting birthday candles. Because.
She was there in the first dark night of my life, which happened when I was a senior in high school. I had worked hard for so many years; I was exhausted. And, precisely when my energy was at its lowest point, my family life reached its most difficult point. My mother went back to college, creating feelings of insecurity for my father. The tumultuous circumstances that followed were hard for me. I remember hearing them fight from my downstairs bedroom. Regardless of the accuracy, in my memory he told her he wanted to kill her every night that year.
One night when I was overwhelmed, I called my other mother. She picked me up in her blue station wagon and drove in circles through our small town while she helped me make sense of things. Later, when my parents were separated at the time I needed to leave for college, she booked my airline ticket and waited for me to call her to let her know that I had arrived safely.
And then, like all good mothers do, she let me go. I sent her holiday cards and let her know about the big developments in my life. But, largely, we weren’t in touch; between 1987 and 2010 we only saw each other a few times. She retired from teaching in 2010 and two of her former students organized a retirement “roast.” She didn’t know I would be participating. When she walked in and saw me she mouthed, “Oh, Kim, it has been so long.”
And, yet, she had never left me.
My next dark night came two years later. I was 43 and my family was falling apart again. My husband and I were separated; the circumstances were painful. Two days after I told him he had to move out of our home, my father became critically ill.
After I flew home to Kentucky, I reached out to her. She brought fresh, warm food to my family and me while we sat with my father. When he died, she helped me plan his funeral service. She and her lovely husband came to the visitation and the funeral. She looked at me with the most loving smile I have ever seen while I delivered the eulogy. Giving that speech was one of the hardest things I have done. But, every time I made eye contact with her, I knew I was cherished and it helped me continue. Afterwards, she hugged me and whispered, “I have never been more proud of you.”
In the months after that, as I struggled to process my father’s death and my feelings for him, I asked her if she had ever met him. She responded, “I remember when we met how handsome, strong and shy I thought he was. I also remember thinking how beautiful his hair, eyes and eyelashes were.” I have read her words many times and hold them close to me as an example of a mother’s kindness. I don’t know if she actually remembered my father or what he looked like. But, she knew I was searching. She knew I yearned for a piece of him and she gave me all that she could.
To this day she gives to me. When I saw her in April she told me, “You always thank me for the things I did for you. Do you ever think about what you have done for me?” It is a mother’s love that, in the face of gratitude, offers its own thanks.
After my father died, I was corresponding with a dear friend and expressed my appreciation for the support of my other mother. He responded, “I knew Ginny would be there for you, Kim. Think she always has been.”
Yes, she always has been there for me. Happy Mother’s Day, Virginia Landreth Etherton. Your love and humanity saved me. And, most important, you helped me break a cycle. Although my daughter will undoubtedly experience her own challenges, she will have a chance to avoid the real dark nights of the soul that I have endured. I love you. You are my other mother.