by Erin Gibson
My mother, Lisa Freeman Shattuck Gibson, is turning 65 this year.
You haven't read about her in a newspaper, magazine, online article or any other public media source. She hasn't created a new app that shows you which single people in your immediate vicinity have STDs. She hasn't designed a new type of phone camera filter that reconfigures your face to look like your favorite celebrity so you can confuse your Snapchat followers.
She has, however, done a shitload of way more important, far more impressive stuff. And she did it without the usual support one might hope for when facing what she has...
the kind of love that hurts
My mother comes from a pretty typical, though somewhat abusive upbringing in the '50s. (Wait, abusive was typical then, right? I'm a spoiled Millennial, so I consider abuse as having my phone service temporarily suspended.) She spent more time with her mother than her father. And that’s who she faced the most judgement, abuse and cynicism from.
By age three she was well versed in changing her baby sister’s diapers and completing house chores a three-year-old shouldn't even know about. When her other two sisters were born, she of course had to step up to the plate even more and assume the role of mother.
That triggered a series of various illnesses throughout her childhood, keeping her hospital bound, bedridden, in pain, and in and out of surgeries until her teenage years. Despite the beginning of her life being filled with physical and emotional torment, as she grew up, the world opened up for my mother...
stimulating and controversial love
She attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and learned to play eight different instruments at Boston University’s Music Education Department. She mastered the organ and the piano and had a LOT of exposure to the jazz scene. She got to kick it with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Gary Burton and a few other famous artists. Yeah, I know—what a badass.
After a rather stimulating college career (*cough* sex and orgies and…), she finally found the love of her life. She faced racism upon entering his all-black family (my mom's white). This was in the ‘70s, so the idea of mixed couples was still frowned upon.
They endured racism from both families, from friends and the public. They were even advised not to have children because of the "hard life" the kids would have to live. Their response, more or less: "Cool. Thanks for sharing, I guess,. But fuck you!" (Now, she would never say “fuck you” to anyone—but that’s the right sentiment.)
They married in a super rad and racially uniting wedding, then proceeded to have some damn fine mixed-race babies. A few years after giving birth to two beautiful children though, the love of my mom's life passed away.
the kind of love that hurts (again)
Enveloped in emotional agony, saddled with financial responsibility and faced with the realities of being a single mother, however, Lisa Gibson found the strength necessary to continue. She kept working, pushing and raising. She had little to no help, with the exception of her sisters.
After some time, my mom met my dad and fell in love again. However, it wasn't long before he showed his true nature: abusive, alcoholic, manipulative and downright bad for her (he's a musician).
Although by then, it was too late—my neglectful father got my sweet, sweet mother pregnant with me and my twin sister. Mom had three abortions prior to our conception, but thanks to what I can only surmise was my fetal body sending psychic messages to my mother in a dream, she decided not to abort us. Thanks, Me! ...and Mom.
After having twin girls at the age of 37—by her DAMN self (which she was highly advised against)—my mom grew even stronger. She kicked my father out of her life and ours. She managed to maintain full-time work and care for all of us on her own.
Eventually, she'd had enough of the life we were all living in Michigan. Lisa found a job and moved us out to sunny, hippie, desert-y Albuquerque when my sister and I were four. We didn't get it at first. Why did our mother choose this location? Why was there such a lack of black people?
It was a painful transition. But we later realized this was the place where my mother could build a life for all of us, her way. It was a way that made us feel safe and loved, valued and supported. Our sense of identity came to be associated with pride, compassion and love.
I don't remember my mother ever yelling at, hitting, slapping, or even grounding any us. Even when my older sister went through her thieving, heavy drug-using, psychotic episode-having phase; even when my older brother lost the love of his life to a car accident and was inconsolable; even when my twin sister had a baby much younger than she intended and looked to my mom for the support she didn't receive from the father...
Every time I've had an emotional breakdown and separated myself from the family, she's been there.
My mother loves and supports us, never anything less, no questions asked. She's like the Energizer Bunny of Unconditional Love... or something. And I know it's a mother's “duty” to love her children unconditionally and always be there... But that’s not always the case.
She could've chosen to give up, to give in, to run away, to find a man to depend on, to rely on her family to make everything better. She didn't though; she relied on herself and only herself. So much so that our model of what a woman is, looks like, represents, can only be measured by her willingness to take on herself. To stand up to herself, rely on, take pride in, and love herself.
I don't give a shit about what awards some women have won, I don't care about their money, fame, men, homes or possessions. My mother not only overcame every obstacle life had to throw at her, but turned it into something beautiful. Those obstacles became an excuse to rise up, to organize, to be better, to be stronger, to be love on levels she didn't know existed. And through that, she became one of the most influential people I'll ever know.
In the early '80s, my mother created the first drafting department and the first word processing department when she worked as a secretary at the Atmospheric & Environmental Research Center. She taught music to black, inner-city kids in the late ‘70s and made them feel hopeful and accepted when no one else would take the job.
She's been in abusive relationships, threatened, raped, near death, heartbroken, discriminated against. She’s traveled the world, hooked up with some famous dudes and some not-so-famous dudes. Worked full-time while taking care of four children alone. Stood up for what she believes in.
She’s been bullied or pushed out of work because of female competition, given up her dreams, then continued to chase them—jobless and clinically depressed. She remains the most patient, forgiving, compassionate, light-hearted, happy, loving and emotionally healthy person I've ever known.
Simply because she chooses to be.
Erin Gibson slings drinks and babysits adults for a living, but she most enjoys talking shit on paper. Painting, reading and travel keep her sane and curious.