When I was growing up, my mother was chronically ill and my father, a severe asthmatic with a heart condition, went bankrupt.
It was a lonely and frightening time during which I was a loner at school and a caretaker at home. But I was blessed to have a teacher who understood, and a neighbor — a second mom, really — whose home became my refuge. I think it’s fair to say they both saved my life.
Mrs. Myers, my seventh-grade English teacher, was a gentle woman whom I visited every day before leaving school. She knew that I had difficulty speaking up in class because I felt ostracized by my classmates, so she seldom asked me to talk.
She also knew something about what was happening at home. I don’t remember talking about any of that but I do recall feeling better by the time I left her classroom after we’d chatted. She made me feel good and strong and capable, and that meant so much when I was an anxious 13-year-old.
Once home, I crossed the street to my neighbor’s house to play with her kids, whom I babysat every weekend. I’d sit at Helen’s kitchen table, talking as she prepared dinner, which made me feel warm and welcome.
In time, her family became mine. I slept over at weekends, joined them for Christmas, and went on their beach holidays each summer. Helen, who is gone now, became my second mom, and to this day I think of her that way with enormous love and gratitude.
She taught me so much about hearth and home, about kindness to strangers, and about how healing it is to laugh at yourself. My family and I still spend Christmas with her kids most years.
As a teacher and a professional, I, too, became a mentor, and to this day nothing gives me more pleasure than helping young people (and sometimes peers) as they navigate their way through careers, relationships, and life’s other myriad challenges.
When a student says, “You changed my life!” or a colleague thanks me with, “I couldn’t have done this without you!” I feel blessed to have been part of their journey in a helpful way.
But what makes me feel even better than that is being a second mom, or a second grandma, to some very special people.
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My first “adopted daughter” was a woman I’d met at a women’s writing conference back in the ’80s. She is black, and her mother had just died. When she shared her grief with me, I said, “I’ll be your white mama.”
She smiled through her tears.
“And I’ll be your dark daughter!” she said.
I still get emails from her addressed to “WM” and signed “DD,” and a Mother’s Day card arrives each year full of love.
I met my Chinese “adopted daughter” in Beijing during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. She was the assistant manager of my hotel, and we connected immediately.
One night, she brought moon cakes to my room, and as our conversation grew deeper, she told me about her fiancé, who had emigrated to Toronto. She feared that he would never manage to bring her there.
When he did, I spent long hours on the phone with her as she adjusted to life in a foreign country. Today, they and my Chinese “grandson” live in Canada, and we talk frequently.
Then there is my Romanian “daughter.” We met when my husband and I stayed in her mother’s newly opened guest house in the north of Romania. She had come home from college to be our guide for a few days, since she spoke English. Again, the connection was immediate.
When she came to the States to study, I was here for her, and I know how much that eased her transition. Like with my Chinese “daughter,” we are still in touch, even though each of them has adjusted to a foreign country, marriage, a child, and a successful career.
My “Caribbean daughter” and “granddaughter” came into my life eight years ago. They live nearby, so I get to see them often, which is delicious. Initially a mentor, I am now a second mom for sure, and that fills me with great joy. I think I can say I am her Helen, and that is one huge mutual gift.
Two years ago I was at the birth of my newest “granddaughter,” who now lives in Boston. Her mom was my student and now, in my heart, she is one of my adopted kids too.
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I have loved watching my family grow over the years thanks to our additional kids and grandkids, each of whom brings something so special into our lives.
When I reflected on the deep feelings I have for them this past Christmas, which they reciprocate in words and deeds, I was reminded of the love and nurturing I received from my second mom all those years ago.
If I bring them half as much comfort as I received in the years of my growing up, my life will have had true meaning.
For that gift, I thank them all from the bottom of my very full heart.