There are moments in life that mark a very clear before & after. It’s a point in your life’s timeline when, in looking back, you can clearly see a remarkable change as a result of an event. Do you know the types of events I am talking about? Some are devastating. But some are so wonderful. The thing they all have in common, however, is that they are life-altering events that lead to regret if we’re not careful. What we need to remember is that your past does not define you. It can't possibly give a clear picture of who you are; it's just part of your story.
I remember busting through the front door of our home on Main Street of a small town we just moved to in rural Washington State from the big cities of Southern California. I was maybe eight years old. Tears were streaming down my face & I could barely speak. My mother was alarmed, but the look in her eyes after I spoke is something I will never forget.
I don't remember exactly what I said, but I remember putting my head in her lap afterward. The neighbor kids had just teased me & called me names I didn't even understand. But I knew it wasn't good & I just felt… Unloved. Unwanted. Unworthy.
My mother smoothed my hair & simply said, “Reta Jayne, they're just jealous God gave you a natural tan & they have to work for theirs.”
I will never forget that.
Mom could have explained racism in a much more heated way. She could have ranted about parents passing bigotry & ignorance on to their children. The whole situation could have gone so differently.
But my mother's one statement said enough. I don't remember if she said anything after that, but this is what stuck.
God made me this way & I am beautiful.
Essentially, that's what my mother said with her words. That's what I heard.
And, so that was a moment that had a clear line marked on my life. You can't see the line itself, but you can look back on who I was before it & who I was after it & clearly see that it made an impact.
I am more tolerant of other people. I am more confident about at least this part of me (my tan skin & curly hair). I am proud of the fact that I am mulatto. I get the best of black and white, as far as I am concerned — & I dare anyone to try to tell me differently.
That event of my past, with tears on my face & my mother smoothing my hair with my head in her lap, doesn't define me. It isn't a clear & complete picture of who I am, but it does tell part of my story. It's a lesson I learned that has shaped how I choose to live my life.
And, there are plenty more moments like that — both good & bad.
But your past does not define you.
The choices you make & the things you've done do not define who you are. They simply speak to some of the lessons you have had the chance to learn along the way…
The sky was a few shades of grey & the wind splattered raindrops against the window. Staring into the chaos outside was oddly calming to the chaos inside of me. I remember thinking that. I still think that about storms, to be honest.
There's something therapeutic about silently crying your eyes out while gazing through a rain-splattered pane of glass. It's like the rain is somehow washing your tears away along with it, giving you permission to just let it all out.
That's exactly what I was doing that day over two decades ago. I was sitting in an armchair of a higher-level floor of a hospital. I remember seeing plenty of rooftops & skyline out that window on clearer days.
Just out of my eyesight, in my peripheral vision to my right if I turned my head ever so slightly, was my mother in her hospital bed. She was hooked up to all kinds of stuff, namely a ventilator to help her breathe.
Due to a drug-induced coma, it had been some time since Mom had opened her eyes. And, on this particular day, out of nowhere, my grandmother (my mama's mom) quietly & excitedly whispered to me, “Her eyes are open! Do you want to come see her?”
I can't even get through sharing this without the tears starting up again just thinking about it…
I just shook my head.
I couldn't compose myself to go look my mother in the eye. I didn't want to be a crying, hot mess when she was the one hooked up to machines.
So, I just sat in that chair crying, staring at that damn rain on that damn window…
That was the last time my mom ever opened her eyes.
I've beat up on myself for that life event a lot over the years. There's been an obscene amount of regret at times. And, other times, I've given myself grace; I was only 17 years old, after all.
But, man! How short-sighted was I in that moment?! How selfish? If I had just considered the regret I would likely feel if my mom did not make it — instead of pushing away the thought that she could actually die? What would I have done then?
How naive I was.
But your past does not define you.
The choices you make & the things you've done do not define who you are. And, thankfully, they don't define me either. They simply speak to some of the lessons we have had the chance to learn along the way…
I am not one who angers quickly; I have a pretty long fuse. But I have big emotions & it has taken me all of my life to get half of a handle on them. So, for me to raise my voice in an argument is a significant occurrence.
On this particular day, I was sitting on our couch in the living room of our small duplex apartment. The disagreement in question was with the man I first thought I would marry. I honestly did. But, I was only 19 years old &, again, how naive I was!
Looking back, we were all kinds of wrong for each other. But there had to have been a purpose for us because we created a pretty amazing boy. My oldest son.
That day, as we spoke, the conversation got increasingly heated. His voice raised & his eyes narrowed. He had a way of looking at me that made me feel inferior. I don't know if he ever knew that. But I could see… Disgust? Fear? Judgment? Contempt? It was in his eyes & it jetted out at me like daggers.
I didn't even realize how loud we were getting until all of a sudden, a 14-month-old baby crawled up into my lap & gave me an unprompted hug. Totally out of the blue.
I remember snapping out of my stupor & focusing in on my son. My eyes widened as I realized what was happening.
And, as the realization hit me, simultaneously, my son crawled down out of my lap & went over to his father to do the same.
Cue the tears.
Not only were we arguing, but we were arguing in front of our son.
Ugh. That was not the kind of mom I wanted to be. That was not the example I wanted to set for my child. I didn't want to have that kind of chaos in my home. There's no way I would want my kid to think that was what a “normal,” healthy relationship should look like.
It wasn't long after that his father & I split.
I was so young & naive & had no idea how to properly take care of myself, much less my son too. My son's grandma (my now-ex-boyfriend's mom) helped me find a job & apartment. But not long after, I was laid off & soon was evicted from the apartment.
I had no idea what to do.
That was the start of my first stint of living out of my vehicle. (I've had two such periods in my life, believe it or not.)
It also resulted in me calling my son's father to come & pick him up. I was 20 years old & he was nearly 30. He was still living in the same place we brought our son home from the hospital to. He had the support of his parents. And, me? Well, my life was a lot more chaotic.
I couldn't see keeping my son with me to live in my car. I couldn't see what my next step would be. But, what I could see was a dad who loved his kid & was better equipped than I was to take care of him.
Watching that man drive away with my baby was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I remember crying in the parking lot after the vehicle disappeared.
What kind of a mother sends her kid away?
By the time I got on my feet again, my one-year-old was three years old. He had, then, spent the majority of his life living with his dad. And my ex had a girlfriend who had a way of making me feel like I was two inches tall, on top of all of that. She spoke to me like I was the scum beneath her feet.
Pair their opinion of me with my own self-esteem issues & that created quite the recipe for confidence!
But I also wasn't going to make a nasty scene for my son either. Not ever again. As far as I was concerned, they could think I was the shittiest person ever. But, as long as my son was happy & well cared for, I wasn't going to give him reason to think ill of them.
I felt, for sure, they tainted my son's view of me. But, of course, there's no way to truly know that. And, frankly, it doesn't matter. I can't control that. But, what I could control was my own actions.
A child deserves to put at least one parent on a pedestal as he grows up. And since I felt my chances of being that parent were lost, I wasn't going to rob my son of that opportunity by throwing dirt.
So I didn't.
My son turned 18 a month ago. I barely know him, yet I am distantly proud of him!
I don't agree with a lot of how he was raised. But, he was brought up with love & I can't fault anyone for that.
Yet I have so many regrets. How could I not? That naivety certainly overflowed into my entire relationship with my oldest son. That first experience of arguing in front of him had a lasting effect on my decision-making & started an entire domino effect of events lasting my son's entire childhood.
There's so much I could have done differently in regard to my son. I wonder how I could have preserved a better relationship with him without exposing him to some of the other hard lessons I had to learn in life.
As a girl, when I pictured motherhood, this is not what came to mind. Far from it! This is not a painting of what a “good mother” is…
But, your past does not define you.
The things that happen to you & around you in your life are not you. The choices you make regarding those events shape the opportunity you have to learn life lessons. Whether you choose right or wrong, whether you have regrets or smile while reminiscing, those past events are NOT an accurate & full depiction of who you are. Those events of your past simply tell part of your story about opportunities you have had, the choices you've made, & lessons you might have learned as a result of all of it.