My 3 Moms: Influenced by three wonderful women


Many of us are lucky to have one wonderful mother. I have had three: my mom, my stepmom and former mother-in-law. While they lived very different lives, all of them were strong women who greatly influenced who I am today.
One of the most fascinating characters I have ever met is my former mother-in-law, Joan. I met Joan when I was 20 years old. Her son was my college sweetheart, future husband and current ex-husband, but Joan and I remain good friends. 
I affectionately called Joan "Ouiser" (pronounced "Weezer") because from the day I met her, she reminded me of Shirley MacLaine's character in the movie Steel Magnolias. She was statuesque -nearly six feet tall- and had curled, brown hair and she wore this long, black fur coat. She was smart, witty and spoke her mind.
Ouiser was an ex-hippie from the '60s who had solo backpacked all over the world. During college, she helped run Columbia University's underground aborition ring. She had tried every drug in the book in a "controlled group" with professors and other intellectuals, so that made it OK. According to Ouiser, that is.
Ouiser's parents were Greek and Russian immigrants who settled in New York City. Her father was a scientist who worked alongside Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, and later for the U.N. Foreign diplomats often dined at their house and she was encouraged to join in the discussions. She was worldly, to say the least, and I'd like to think that some of my sense of adventure came from her. 
In contrast, my own mother was raised in the Pennsylvania countryside during the 1950s. She wore poodle skirts, went to sock hops and the wildest thing she did was listen to Elvis. She helped take care of the house and learned to make everything from scratch, from cooking to clothing. Her parents were simple, old-fashioned, traditional folks who didn't travel much and believed young women should get married instead of going to college.
While my mom was traditional in the sense of wanting a family, she also wanted to have her own career and travel the world. She kept a secret bucket list and, when asked of her post-graduation plans in her high school yearbook, she listed "stewardess."
Mom never did become a stewardess. Airline companies didn't allow married women in those roles back then, so when she married my dad - shortly after graduating from high school - that career option was over. 
Mom worked as a secretary, went to college at night and ultimately became a paralegal. She and my father would have three kids, and life got busy. Her dreams of traveling the world were put on hold. 
By the time I was 6 years old, they decided to divorce. Each remarried other people. 
Mom straddled the line between being a traditional and working mom. She still made everything from scratch - sewing quilts, making clothes, baking and even coaching our softball teams. She was active and always there for us kids. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, but she did her best to expose us to new things and places. One summer we took a trip across the country, sleeping in the van, and saw Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, the Alamo and everything in between. She and my stepdad saved for years to take us to Hawaii one Christmas. They wanted us to see what we could have if we worked hard, and we all would grow to want, see and learn more. 
By the end of high school, my sister and I were going to college. It wasn't even an option; she demanded it. 
Mom put off her travel dreams and bucket list until retirement. Literally, after her last day of work, she jumped on a boat to Panama. A few months later, she and my stepdad celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary by climbing volcanoes in Hawaii. Later that summer, they hiked the hills of Ireland. She was on a mission!
Then cancer struck. Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She never smoked a day in her life. She was so positive and upbeat fighting it. Everyone rallied around her, including Ouiser (they had become good friends — they were like yin and yang). 
When Mom was having terrible side effects from chemo, Ouiser suggested she try marijuana, and even made her marijuana-laced zucchini bread. It worked! Never in a million years could I have pictured my mom, sitting at the kitchen table, muching on zucchini bread and getting high. I still laugh, thinking of her smiling and saying, "Honey, I feel spacey." She was traditional, but open-minded, and those dueling yet complementary qualities resonated with me. 
We all thought Mom would beat cancer, but she died nine months after her diagnosis at the age of 59. It was a devastating blow, and whether my stepmother knows it or not, she helped give me strength during this time. 
Pam, my "bonus mom," and my dad have now been married for 31 years. She is not like my mother at all. She is loving, but different. She is also one of the strongest women I know. 
Pam grew up outside of Pittsburgh. Both of her parents died when she was in her 20s. During this time, she went to college, became a nurse, married and had four boys. When she was 32, her husband died of leukemia and she was left alone to raise four sons all under the age of 10. She would meet and marry my father five years later.
She jokes about how my dad must have been crazy to marry her with all the baggage, but I truly believe they were meant for each other.
I never took the time to think of her past until my mom died. To lose both of her parents and her husband so young, and then raising four kids by herself? I couldn't imagine the strength needed to cope and go on as she did. "It wasn't easy," she has told me, "but you go on. You have to." I hope that I've shown some of the same strength during rough periods in my life. 
Life After
Ironically, though my mom never did become a stewardess, my brother and sister became commercial airline pilots. 
I found Mom's unfinished bucket list, and I decided to complete it by spreading her ashes to all the places on her list. Mom has now been to six of the Seven Wonders of the World, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Fugi and the list goes on and on.
Through each of my three moms, I learned that wanderlust and tradition can coexist, and the strength to go on lies in all of us. 

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