Excerpt from Mom

Excerpt from Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps

Johnella LaRose, 50, speaks with her daughter, Kasima Kinlichiinii, 22

Johnella LaRose: I had two children and I was three months pregnant with you, Kasima, when your dad left. And I remember thinking, Now what am I going to do? We were living in the Los Padres National Forest [California] with other Indian people, taking care of horses and cows. We got $436 a month on welfare, and I did beadwork, I sewed, I did laundry, I ironed—I did everything.

Kasima Kinlichiinii: You would pick up cans, too, and I was like, Oh my God, here she goes again, picking up cans! The other day, my cousin was drinking ginger ale, and I said, “Don’t you throw that can away!” And I was like, Oh, God, I sound like my mother! [laughs]

Johnella: When you were four and the boys were ten and twelve, I just couldn’t make it anymore. I was in the Native American Health Center in Oakland, and one of the gals gave me a flyer about a pre-apprenticeship program in the trades. I had no idea what that was, but I thought, I’ve got to do something. So I went through the apprenticeship, and I became a union cabinetmaker.

My first week my paycheck was $240, and that first year I made $13,000 in the shop—at that point I had been getting $8,000 a year on welfare. The next year I made $19,000, the year after that I think I made $26,000, and it’s gone up from there. So it changed everything. It was a lot of money—hard-earned money! I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was the only woman in a cabinet shop with twenty-nine guys, but I did it. I was running the shaper, the planer, table saws—everything.

Kasima: And you’d never used any of those before?

Johnella: Never—but I learned. One time I brought a cabinet home, and I set it on the kitchen table. Your brother walked in, and he goes, “Where’d you buy that?” I said, “Your mother made it!”

Kasima: I remember you just being busy, busy all the time. You were always dirty. [laughs] Dirt in your nails all the time. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I’m really thankful that you did that for us.

Johnella: Do you remember—I didn’t have a car, so I had to ride my bicycle to drop you off at the babysitter’s at five thirty in the morning. Then I rode three miles to work every single day for two years. I was in really good shape! And one day it was raining, and you said, “No more bicycle! No more bicycle!” I mean, you were just sobbing. I thought, Okay. Maybe we should try and get a car.… [laughs]

There were problems, no doubt. This one guy would say to me, “Why are you here? You should go home.” He didn’t think women belonged in the shop. I was like, You got to be kidding me, right? I said, “I don’t have a husband to take care of me. I’m feeding everybody in this house. There’s nobody paying my bills.”

I had to survive: I had kids to take care of. And I had nothing else—I just squeaked through high school, had kids when I was really young—so I had to hang in there. And I did. If you can get to the job, you can do the job. Sometimes the rest of your life can stop you, and that’s where you have to just say: No matter what happens from three thirty in the afternoon to seven o’clock the next morning, I just have to deal with that so I can get back into that shop. And that’s what I did. I was proud of that—I am proud of that.

I go to places now and I see reception counters that I helped build, and I’m just proud that I did it, you know? Now I’m going to college for the first time—today was actually my first day—and I know now that I can probably learn anything. But I didn’t know that before.

Kasima: I just had a baby; he’s four and a half months old. You make me motivated to support myself and my son. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do yet or how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do something. I’m just wondering how I can be a good mother to him by myself.

Johnella: I think that the creator puts something in front of you, and you just have to grab it and see what you can do with it.

Kasima: I hope I can be as strong as you are.

Johnella: You are as strong as I am.

Kasima: Do you have any words of wisdom for me?

Johnella: As a parent you can make a lot of mistakes, but you can always fix them. If you say something that you didn’t mean, just say: “I didn’t mean that; I was upset.” Just fix it right away, because people carry things inside and you don’t want that. You’ll make mistakes—you’re a human being. So just forgive yourself and move on.

I know there’ve been days when I raced home and tried to get dinner on the table, and somebody’s lost their bus pass, someone’s done this, someone’s done that—none of that matters. What really matters is that you keep your cool with your children. The house being clean—forget it, it doesn’t matter. Having dinner on the table—it doesn’t matter. If you’re stuck and it’s raining out and you’re in the car, have a picnic in the car. I know this for a fact: it’ll mean more to your child than rushing home, screaming at them, and trying to get dinner on. The baby can be in his car seat and you can sit in the backseat with him and you’ll just have a beautiful time that he’ll remember forever.

Kasima: Thanks a lot for being my mother.

Johnella: You’re welcome. I just wanted to make life better for you kids. I know that there’s only so far I can go. Now it’s up to you to take it and run.

Recorded in Oakland, California, on August 18, 2009.


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