StoryCorps 500: Tough Mother
Michael Garofalo (MG): Being a mom can be hard. It takes patience, resilience, and a lot of times the things moms do to keep their families afloat take a fair amount of grit.
Joyce Butler (JB): It was bitter cold in the winter going into the bowels of those steel ships. They had to wiggle into narrow crawl spaces and lay on their backs and weld overhead.
MG: Let’s face it, moms are tough tough people and their kids realize that from an early age.
Nancy Wright (NW): She was real small. She was like five feet, two inches tall. And…
JD Wright (JDW): She didn’t look that small when you were around her.
NW: No, but she was… she was a formidable presence.
MG: In this episode, we’re paying tribute to some tough mothers– without shying away from how challenging it can be if you happen to be their kid.
Theresa Nguyen (TN): Most of your friends are Vietnamese too, right? And, um, I don’t know if you ever compare if your mommy is tougher than mine?
Stephanie Nguyen (SN): I don’t even know where to start with that…
MG: From NPR, this is the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo. These stories and more on this Mother’s Day episode after a short break. Stay with us.
MG: And we’re back.
In this episode we’re hearing from and about tough moms. To begin, we’re going back to World War II and memories of a real-life “Rosie the Riveter.”
Dot Kelly went to work building ships in Portland, Maine in 1941. She was recently divorced and raising four kids on her own. Dot’s daughter — Joyce Butler — was in second grade at the time and here, she remembers her mom.
JB: After the divorce, there wasn’t much money. So, my mother worked in the laundry and different places and she finally got a job at Montgomery Ward’s department store. And, these young women would come in all dressed in these big boots and these kind of rough overalls and they would have checks of six hundred dollars to cash. And she finally asked one of them, “Where do you work that you make so much money?” And they said, ”in the shipyard.”
So my mother went over, and the man who interviewed her said, ”did you want to be a welder or a burner.” And my mother said, “Which pays the most?” And he said, “A welder.” And she said, “that’s what I want to do.” And he said “Oh, mercenary huh?” And she said ”no I have four children to take care of.”
It was bitter cold in the winter going into the bowels of those steel ships. They had to wiggle into narrow crawl spaces and lay on their backs and weld overhead. And I remember her neck and her chest here all spotted with burn marks from the sparks, and her shift was midnight to six A.M. so she could be home with us during the day.
I remember her dressing the the heavy clothing, men’s clothing. Once she fell and hurt her ankle and they brought her home in the middle of the night, and she was weeping, I remember that.
After the shipyard closed, she needed to have two jobs to make enough money and we kids were more or less on our own and that was not a happy time, but still she was determined to keep us together as a family.
MG: That’s Joyce Butler, remembering her mother, Dot Kelly, a real life Rosie the Riveter. Joyce spoke with her own daughter, Stephanie, in Portland, Maine.
After the war Dot went back to working days Montgomery Ward’s department store and, at night, she’d take a long bus ride to her second job, at a local mill.
MG: Ok, so Dot was physically tough, but what about moms who are strict?
Theresa Nguyen and her daughter Stephanie’s relationship is something of a balancing act between Theresa’s traditional Vietnamese style of parenting, and Stephanie’s desire to just be an American kid.
Theresa left Saigon in 1979. Stephanie was born in Ohio and when Stephanie was 15 years old they had this conversation.
TN: Many times when I look back on your upbringing, if I had to do it again, a couple of things I would have changed.
SN: What would you do differently?
TN: I would be a little more compromising. Remember some boy gave you a necklace?
SN: And you made me go back to school the next day and give him back the locket.
TN: Ok, I was taught from my mom do not accept presents from strangers. Because if you accept presents from them you have to repay them; it is a debt you have to carry to your grave.
TN: So, so things like that I would go back and I would be a little more understanding. I might ask to go swap it out for something cheaper.
TN: Most of your friends are Vietnamese too, right? And, um, I don’t know if you ever compare if your mommy is tougher than mine?
SN: I don’t even know where to start with that…um…when you’re 12, and your whole world revolves around who got to sleep over at whoever’s house it’s not fun to say oh no, I can’t do that.
TN: I know a lot of times I am living in this country trying to acculturate, but at the same time, I want to preserve the Asian culture. I want to keep the family together. And sometimes when I look back I… I do realize that I was a little bit too tough.
SN: I wouldn’t say that I… resent you in any way for that. I think I learned a very strong sense of right and wrong and working hard.
TN: I know many, many times I’m very proud of you, but I just don’t say it. And Daddy gets on my case all the time: “You don’t say it, you don’t say it!” And I would tell him, “But she knows I feel it!” I don’t know if you do know or not?
SN: I’m glad that you’re proud of me because most of the time I feel like I’m a disappointment.
TN: No, you are not! I am just one of those old Asian moms. We never say we love you! We expect you to see it through our actions. But I’m learning, I’m learning. When I go away from this life, I want you to remember my love for you, that’s all. I don’t care for anything else.
MG: That’s Theresa Nguyen and her daughter Stephanie in Morrow, Georgia.
MG: This next conversation also deals with some friction between a mom and her teenage daughter, but in this one, we get to hear what happened after those difficult years passed.
Shortly after Nancy Wright’s mom died, she came to StoryCorps with her son, JD, to look back on their relationship.
Nancy Wright (NW): She was real small. She was like five feet, two inches tall. And…
JD Wright (JDW): She didn’t look that small… when you were around her…
NW: No, but she was… she was a formidable presence. And she was really defiant of authority. I remember a story when she was growing up one time, of going into a, a classroom and the screen door behind her slamming shut, and the teacher thought she had slammed the door, and made her go back and close it quietly one hundred times in a row. So, she closed it quietly ninety-nine times and then slammed the hell out of it the, the one-hundredth time.
JDW: So, what was your relationship like with her?
NW: We had an interesting time, especially in adolescence. We were pretty compatible up to that point. And then, uh, I think we grated on each other’s nerves quite a bit. And our relationship really kind of went downhill from there. She was critical of me and very judgment laden. And, finally, when I was about thirty, we were together, and it was just a miserable weekend. I felt our relationship was awful. And, I told her right before I left, that, um, I couldn’t deal with that kind of criticism anymore. And it wasn’t helping me. And she said that that’s what mothers do. And I said I didn’t need a mother anymore; I needed a friend. That if she wanted to continue to try and be my mother that way, that I, I didn’t want that. But, to call me if she wanted to be my friend. She was very angry and upset. And, um, and I kind of almost didn’t expect to hear from her, because she could be a little stubborn. It’s kind of a family trait. And, uh, I think about two weeks, though, after that conversation, I picked up the phone one day and a kind of small voice said on the other side, um, “Hi. This is your friend.” And it was. And we stayed friends until she died. With only occasional lapses in critical judgment. But, I think I had my lapses too.
MG: That’s Nancy Wright, remembering her mom, Francis Erikson, in Gainesville, Florida. She was speaking with her son, JD.
MG: This last story puts a bit of a twist on our theme. It’s about a teenager who had to step into a mother’s role for her siblings and, in some ways, even for her own mom.
Kayla Wilson first came to StoryCorps in 2006, when she was 15. At the time, her mom was in prison on drug charges and Kayla spoke with her grandmother Terilyn about her mom’s addiction to methamphetamines.
You’ll hear that conversation first and then you’ll hear Kayla speaking with her mom 10 years after that first interview.
Kayla Wilson (KW): When I asked mom how she got started, she told me that after her papa died, she was just mad at the world and mad at God, and that’s when she told one of her ex-boyfriends that she wanted to get high.
Terilyn Coulter-Colclasure (TCC): How old was she when this happened?
KW: 15, I think.
TCC: Your age?
KW: Yes ma’am.
When she got busted, she was at our house. And I think they were making dope and it had spilled on my younger sister. And, it was just so heartbreaking to understand that this is what’s going on and this is how it’s going to be.
When I saw her in prison, it was horrible because you see her come out of the door in that white suit. And her hair was gone. And she loved her long hair and I just had to cry. And then having to say bye, and holding onto her, knowing you couldn’t take her with you was the most horrible experience I’ve ever had.
TCC: When your mom gets out of prison, what do you think your life is going to be like?
KW: I think I will have the ability to actually be a child for a little bit. Not have to worry about being the mature responsible adult. I think that it’ll really be nice.
Wendy Founds (WF): My name is Wendy Founds, today’s date is December the 12th, 2016, and I am here with my daughter.
KW: You remember the day you were released from prison and got to come home?
WF: I do. I remember how you smelled. It was vanilla. And I remember the relief of…our lives get to really start from this point forward.
KW: I do remember specifically when you came home and you wanted to apologize. I think that was a defining moment for us because I got to tell you what I’d always wanted to tell you which was that, you know, you can never make up for that time.
WF: I, uh, bawled for days after that conversation. But it helped me to be a better mom, and I’m still far from perfect.
Did you ever wish that I was different?
KW: Yeah, for sure. I can remember, you know, writing in diaries about how much I hated you because you chose drugs over me.
WF: Why did you decide to forgive me?
KW: When you finally decided to get clean, it was obvious you were sincere. And you’re my mom, and as my mom, I loved you. I wanted that relationship.
WF: Did that come too late?
KW: I don’t think so. Sure, would have been great to have growing up, but I’m happy you’re here and I’m happy we’re where we’re at today. And I think what we’ve got is awesome considering where we’ve been. So I’m excited to see what happens next.
MG: That’s Kayla Wilson with her mother, Wendy Founds. Kayla is now a high school teacher in Benton, Arkansas, and Wendy, now lives with Kayla. She helps counsel other parents struggling with addiction.
MG: That’s all for this episode. These stories were produced by me, Katie Simon, Nadia Reiman, John White, and Madison Mullen.
The podcast is produced by me and Elisheba Ittoop.
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Until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo for the StoryCorps podcast. Thanks for listening.