Monday, June 29, 2009

Bonnie Lu Ford, June 29, 1945 - June 28, 1990

Today is my mother's birthday. She would have been 64 years old. She died in 1990, the day before her 45th birthday. I was 19 years old and I had just completed my freshman year of college at Virginia Commonwealth University. It's hard to believe that another 19 years have passed since then. This morning I woke up acutely aware that starting today I will have been living without her longer than the years I had her in my life. That's an odd thought to embrace, and I'm still letting it sink in.

It's incredible how someone so significant in your life can become a mental montage of images, moments, feelings, sounds and smells. But this is what happens. My mom brought me into this world and made an indelible mark on who I am today, but there's been so much life since her death -- college graduation, three cities, five jobs, marriage, divorce, countless firsts and lasts, losses, new beginnings, the birth of a nephew. So much. So much. So much of my life has happened without her here with me. I want the people who are in my life today to know her, my mom, Bonnie Lu Ford.
  • She was born Bonnie Lu McNutt and she grew up in Cleveland with one older brother.

  • She graduated from Ohio University, where she was in a sorority and where she met my dad.

  • She was married to my dad for 13 years and they had two girls - my younger sister, Jill, and me.

  • She was 5 foot, 4 inches, and 108 pounds.
  • She had olive skin, brown eyes and dark brown hair that turned mostly gray in the last years of her life.

  • She drove a Saab before anyone in Texas knew what they were. It was the color of a kidney bean and the few other drivers on the road who had Saabs usually waved at us as they passed.

  • As a single, working mom raising two daughters, she pursued and earned her master's degree in marketing from North Texas State University.

  • When we were growing up in Dallas, she worked in the marketing department of a national restaurant chain. Her last job was a marketing manager position for a D.C.-based, national trade association.

  • She was an avid tennis player and played in tournaments when my sister and I were growing up. Her trophies were displayed among the books and knick-knacks in our living room.

  • Her all-time favorite singer was James Taylor, although she listened to a lot of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Fleetwood Mac, Julio Iglesias and Neil Diamond.

  • She went to Michael Jackson's Thriller concert and brought home purple-and-black Michael Jackson bandanas for my sister and me.

  • She loved pickles, root beer floats, mint chocolate chip ice cream and Fig Newtons.

  • She drank original Coors.

  • She liked to put peanut butter on sliced apples -- she also ate peanut butter and pickle sandwiches (a McNutt family favorite). It's actually good. I swear.

  • She made simple, convenient dinners - baked chicken, pork chops, frozen pizza, fish sticks, spaghetti and tacos -- always with two sides (corn, brocolli, baked beans or rice were favorites) and a tossed iceberg lettuce salad.

  • She always set salad dressing on the table - usually Wish-Bone Italian and Kraft Catalina.

  • She liked liverwurst.

  • She kept powdered Nestle's NesQuik and Tang in the pantry.

  • She made great Christmas cookies -- especially the powdered-sugar wedding cookies that she'd shape into balls or crescent moons.

  • Without her contacts or glasses, she was legally blind. I liked to wear her glasses and pretend I was walking around a fun house.
  • Many times when leaving reminder notes for Jill and me, she would sign them "Yo Mama."

  • When she was thinking hard about something, she'd pucker her lips and furrow her eyebrows.

  • Her hair was very thin and fine and super soft.

  • She used a pick to tease her permed curls.

  • She liked to accessorize with bangles - necklaces and bracelets, mostly.

  • She wore clip-on earrings.

  • She had lots of tailored skirts and blazers for work.

  • When she moved to Alexandria, she sometimes put on tennis shoes with her work clothes and walked to the office.

  • She used Vidal Sassoon shampoo and conditioner.

  • She wore Ralph Lauren perfume.

  • Sometimes she would refer to Jill and me as "my goils" or "my lil' chillens."
  • She bravely and generously gave my sister and I creative license with our bedrooms. In Dallas, Jill's room was lavender and I chose a color called "Bolt of Blue" (a.k.a. turquoise). When Mom moved into a renovated row house in Old Town Alexandria, Jill painted the original hardwood floors in her room pink (picture Pepto-Bismol), and I opted to paint my walls black.

  • She loved Woody Allen movies.

  • She thought Steve Martin's "The Jerk" was hysterical.

  • She played piano and guitar.

  • She didn't have much of a singing voice, but she tried.

  • She liked camping and loved the American Southwest and the Colorado mountains.

  • She liked the artist R.C. Gorman, and we met him once during a summer vacation to New Mexico.

  • She looked great in a tennis skirt. She usually wore sweatbands on her wrists and a sun visor when she played.

  • She owned a Wilson racket.

  • When we were in grade school, she had a striped bikini that reminded me of Fruit Stripe Gum.

  • She had a slight frame with a long neck, thin wrists, long fingers, long arms and legs. She walked with her hips slightly forward and her feet turned a bit outward.

  • She wore Maybelline eyeliner in Velvet Black.

  • At night she often put Mary Kay night cream on her hands and it smelled like peaches.
  • She rarely cursed or cried, so when she did, it got your attention.

  • In the late '70s and early '80s she wore her hair in a quasi-mullet, but we called it a "bi-level" and, for a time, my sister and I had one too.

  • She would get really tan in the summertime.

  • One of the most soothing memories I have as a little girl is of being in her lap with my head against her chest and hearing/feeling the vibration of her voice as she talked on the phone.

  • When she really got to laughing she would snort, and that would make her laugh even harder.

  • Not hearing the lyrics correctly, she thought the Go-Go's "Our Lips are Sealed" was "Alice the Seal."
  • When I felt unhappy or disenchanted as a teenager (which was often), Mom would make me write down a list of all the good things and bad things in my life, and inevitably the good would outnumber the bad and I'd feel a little better.
  • She once told me that love really is the best medicine, and I certainly believe it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Truth Be Told

It was the last thing I expected to hear coming from her lips. The poised, well-dressed woman at the front of the room was telling us that she had spent 15 years in prison ― 15 years that she will never get back. She completely missed her now grown children’s formative years, a soul-crushing reality that caused her to choke back tears as she spoke.

Rutanya Pearson was one of the panelists at a Seedling Foundation mentor training session that I attended in the fall. She represented Truth Be Told, an Austin-based nonprofit group that provides creative tools for personal and spiritual growth for incarcerated women. According to Truth Be Told, the goal is to “encourage in these women a deeper sense of personal responsibility and to help them face the truth of their pasts and embrace the hope of their futures.”

After the training, I asked Rutanya how I could learn more about Truth Be Told. She suggested that I volunteer to be an audience member at an upcoming “graduation ceremony” for 29 female inmates who were about to complete the latest Truth Be Told series.

And that’s how I found myself spending an afternoon at the Lockhart Prison Unit.

It turns out I wasn’t the only Seedling representative who signed up to be a “respectful listener” at the graduation. Six Seedling directors were also there. At first, I was surprised to see their familiar faces; but, in hindsight, our shared curiosity in Truth Be Told makes perfect sense. The way I see it: If I’m going to be the best mentor I can be to a child whose mother is incarcerated, I need to seek to understand the parent’s experience as well as the child’s.

The graduation ceremony didn’t entail caps and gowns or long-winded speeches. There were no cheering relatives saddled with camcorders in the stands. After turning in our drivers’ licenses at the prison’s entrance and being frisked by security guards, we volunteers were escorted through a maze of drab, concrete corridors. There was not a single window in sight and the air smelled like a hospital.

Eventually we arrived at a gymnasium. The female inmates, in their standard-issue blue scrubs, waited just inside the door, a makeshift receiving line for the guests. As I shook their hands, I noticed that some of them were trembling with nerves as they smiled their best smiles. I felt my apprehension slowly shift to something that felt more like compassion.

Prior to arriving at the prison, we were informed that the Truth Be Told participants were asked to put together presentations that reflected their personal journeys of self-discovery. The women could use any of the skills they had learned in Truth Be Told, from public speaking to creative writing to dance and movement. They could work on something individually or in small groups. Whatever they chose to do, the women had to present their creative works at graduation.

The Truth Be Told founder opened the program with a prayer and then the presentations began. Over the next 90 minutes, I watched a myriad of performances. Some women sang songs or read poems they had written. Others performed group skits; a few presented monologues. The range of stories, memories, perspectives, epiphanies and emotions overwhelmed me. Their truths were raw, funny, painful, disconcerting, inspiring, candid, brave, optimistic. I could go on forever with adjectives.

Our role as volunteers that day was to be a "respectful listener," but still we were perfect strangers to these women. They stood before us, anyway, risking judgment and unloading their greatest sorrows, admitting their deepest fears, owning up to their biggest mistakes and ― perhaps most importantly ― giving voice to their newfound hopes and dreams.

Afterwards, the audience members were given an opportunity to stand up and give feedback on the presentations. I thought this was brilliant, because I’m sure these women rarely hear things like “You fill me with hope” or simply “Thank you for being so honest."

At the program’s conclusion, the atmosphere was not unlike your typical post-graduation scene. Volunteers and graduates mingled about the room, laughing, hugging and sharing high fives. Heartfelt compliments and thank-yous were expressed. I wanted to tell each woman directly that I was proud of her, but the warden suddenly entered the gym and sharply announced that our time was up. As I watched these women file out of the room, I no longer saw only abusers, addicts and thieves. I saw mothers, sisters and daughters ― each with a truth to tell and a dream in her heart. And I genuinely hoped the best for them.

We were at the Lockhart prison for only an afternoon, but the experience has left an indelible mark on my conscience. Until that day, it was easy for me as a Seedling mentor to demonize the incarcerated parent. Now I find it harder to cast such a final judgment. To see someone in such black-and-white terms.

I don’t know. You could spend a lifetime debating who’s to blame and where the evil begins. Maybe it’s better to focus on where it could end ― with the ones we mentor.