The Good Mother

My mother's father
My mother's father

Where do I begin?

Hi Mom,

You asked me many times to write the story of your life. I always resisted, but I think you always knew you would get your way.

Here is your beginning, or the earliest you that I remember from our conversations:

An undated childhood photo of my mother
An undated childhood photo of my mother

You are young – five in your memory, but the documents say you must have been closer to seven. You are in a line of people at a church, and someone is holding you over a box where a man in an Army uniform lays sleeping. “Say goodbye father,” the adult says.

It is 1946; he had been in a VA hospital since before the War ended. His name was Owen Barnes, Sr. You had no other memory of him.

According  your birth certificate, Owen worked for the WPA when you came along in 1939. You were baby number three. He had married your mother, Eileen Farrell, in 1934, when she was 17. They lived in Camden, New Jersey. On your birth certificate, she is listed as a housewife, but there are stories about her doing domestic work as well. She was an amazing cook, and handy around the house, besides. He went into the Army in 1942.

Perhaps Eileen wanted to escape a painful and lonely youth. It’s certainly possible, considering that her own mother, Edna, had died in childbirth when Eileen was only 8 and by all accounts her father’s remarriage had done nothing to assuage his bitterness at life. He was still a bitter man when I spent time with him 60 years later, trying to understand how your family’s past contributed to who you had become, and who you had not.

According to family lore, the root of your grandfather’s bitterness lay in his learning, as a young man, that his absent father was white. He saw a photo of a white man who looked like him among his mother’s things, asked who that was, and was told. He never spoke to or saw his mother again. When she died, he made the arrangements, paid for the funeral, and did not attend. When I asked about his father being white all of those years later, he snapped, “I’m colored!”

John Henry Farrell, my grandmother's father
John Henry Farrell, my grandmother's father

Eileen spent much of her childhood with her mother’s family, the Ashtons, in Chesilhurst. The Ashtons were Native American. You once showed me a newspaper clipping about her grandfather, George

Edna Ashton Farrell, who died in childbirth in 1925, was my mother's maternal grandmother
Edna Ashton Farrell, who died in childbirth in 1925, was my mother's maternal grandmother

Ashton, leading some Native American organization. I can’t find it now.

But that is another story. We were talking about you. Your life changed dramatically after your father died. Your mother could not afford to care for all of her babies,and you were sent to her sister Gladys in Connecticut. I never asked your mother how it felt to have to give up her children to be raised by others. I got to see enough of her interactions with all of you to know that it must have been agony. She loved you all and all of you loved her.

Compared to her widowed sister, Gladys was living high on the hog. She had been able to get a job at Pratt and Whitney during the war. She had a working husband and no children of her own. She took you and one of your younger brothers.  She taught you to call her “Mother,” and upgraded your wardrobe. You learned to set a proper table and value formal education. You formed an ambition that she encouraged: to go to Fisk College and then Meharry Medical School. [I never got to ask you why it had to be Fisk. You had no connection to Tennessee. Although you spoke of us having relatives in Virginia and Maryland, I don’t think you had ever been South.] You had a best friend named Gertie and a crush on a boy named Jerry that still put a lilt in your voice when you told me about him in the 1980s.  It was a nice dream, and then it ended.

It should be noted that there is a dispute as to what actually happened that sent you back to New Jersey. The story your sister tells starts with a precipitating incident that I recall hearing from you as well. According to the story, one day the milkman showed up to collect his fee. Aunt Gladys told you to say that she wasn’t home. You told the milkman, “My Mommy says to say she’s not at home.”  And then you laughed and said, “Aunt Gladys was maaad at me!”

Mommy with her Aunt Gladys, whom she learned to call Mother
Mommy with her Aunt Gladys, whom she learned to call Mother.

If I remember the story you told me correctly, you were 14, which would make the year 1953. Eileen had come to visit Gladys in Connecticut. By that time, by my count, maybe six of her children had yet to be born. I’m guessing the twins had already been stillborn.

My mother's mother and one of her babies. My mother was probably a toddler when this was taken.
My mother's mother and one of her babies. My mother was probably a toddler when this was taken.

You said you were upstairs when you heard Eileen and Gladys arguing. By then you had grown accustomed to thinking of Gladys as your mother and Eileen as your aunt. Gladys didn’t want you to go. She said you had a chance at a future; at the very least you needed to finish high school. Eileen said something like, Anna does not need a diploma to do what I need her to do. She can get a job. She can help me take care of her brothers and sisters. I’m her mother. It’s not up to you to decide.

And this declaration swept you down the steps, against all decorum. You landed in the living room and wailed, “CAN ONE OF YOU PLEASE TELL ME, WHO IS MY MOTHER?” You never told me what they said, but the answer came, nonetheless.

Your sister, who says she was there, says she has no recollection of this conversation, or such a declaration on your part.

Either way,  you did not get to graduate from high school in Hartford. You were back  in Chesilhurst New Jersey, trying to make sense of what had become an alien world.

I hope this is okay for a start. Talk to you again soon. I love you. Give Grandmom a hug from me.