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A mother’s devotion comes to light years after she’s gone

I recently wrote a column about how, old as I am, I still miss my mother’s presence and long for signs she is here with me.

I got one soon after that.

Some decades ago – despondent over my parents’ bitter divorce and the disintegration of everything I valued – I dropped out of college and took off traveling with a boyfriend, a Coleman stove and a tent.

After a year of traveling coast-to-coast, living at campgrounds and waitressing or cleaning motel rooms when we needed money, I wound up back home in rural Louisiana with my mother and my sisters.

I got a job at a nightclub, making such good money that I forgot about college.

I didn’t think going to college mattered anymore, not to me, not to anybody else in my fractured family.

It didn’t even seem to matter to my mother, who hadn’t attended college herself but always championed me to go, who now was raising four daughters without a husband and seemed burned out on motherhood and the idea of anything resembling a future.

I worked like this for several months until one of my childhood friends came from New Orleans for a surprise visit.

Joanne drove four hours, walked into the dark, windowless bar where I was waiting tables, and ordered a soft drink.

When I brought it to her, she took a long look at me in my short black waitress uniform and thick blue eyeshadow, and suddenly blurted, “I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re too smart for this. You need to go back to college.”

She stalked out of the bar and drove back to New Orleans.

Her words stung.

But they also rang true.

And the next day, I re-enrolled in the local university.

I went on to graduate, to start a career in journalism and to marry a college professor. I became the mother of three and settled into a Cape Cod on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in a quiet college town in Ohio.

I didn’t see Joanne again until decades later, at my mother’s funeral in New Orleans eight years ago. I was glad to see her, so I could finally tell her what a gift she gave when she came to visit me that night at the bar.

I made it a point to thank her the two times I saw her after that, including a few weeks ago when I was in New Orleans again to visit family.

But this last time, soon after I got back home to Ohio, just after I wrote that column about missing my mother, I got a Facebook message from her.

“When you were here and told the story of how I got you to go back to school, I thought hard about the incident because I could not remember all of it,” she said. “The more I thought about it, I must confess – and as my sister would say ‘I should give credit where credit is due’ – I remember that it was your mom who asked me to talk to you. Your mom loved you and wanted more for all of you, and she knew advice from a friend would maybe help more than from a mother.

“I wish I was the one that saved you. But it was your mom.”

Psychologists say learning new information about a person from our past can bring that person to life as if she’s right here in front of us again – only fresh, new and different.

And so it was with my mother.

Hearing this story made me see my mother in ways I couldn’t have when I was 19. Hearing this story made me realize that burned out as I thought she was, she still remembered to be my mother.

Hearing this story made me wish ever more fervently she could be present here with me, informing my own motherhood, walking beside me again in everything I do.

Hearing this story made me realize she is.

Contact Debra-Lynn B. Hook at