"People ask me what it was like to grow up without a father. I used to say I didn't really know because I had nothing to compare it to."
It was the same book my father would be reading in his recovery program. She came across these lines: "Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it twice." After years of boozing and drugging, those words revealed an undiscovered truth: At 35, she, too, needed to clean up.
With their shared source of misery behind them, my parents found calm, and my mom soon became pregnant with me. But five months in, my dad, at 29, decided the party wasn't over and that a pregnant, dry, drinking buddy was no drinking buddy at all. He walked out on his two-year marriage for good.
So there she was: alone, baby on the way, white-knuckling the wagon, no college education or money in the bank. The only things to her name were a failing women's clothing store and our home—a bank-owned trailer on the side of a highway outside Ketchum, Idaho.
This was a rotten hand. The American dream isn't so easy to find when you have two X chromosomes, an infant, and no help or degree. According to one estimate, the poverty rate of single mothers is five times that of married couples, and half of single mothers live in what the government calls "extreme poverty," getting by on less than $200 a week.
So my mother folded. She closed the store, walked away from the trailer, and moved us to Utah to be near family. Despite the misgivings of her parents, who wanted her to take a safe job at the IRS, she started a business as an independent wholesaler of women's clothes.
Have you ever played tug-of-war with a pit bull? It'll pull until you quit or it dies. That's Lynda Easter. She called on more clients, did more favors, and drove more miles than anyone in her industry. We ate a lot of takeout.
"You're lucky," my mom's work friends would tell me as I sat in her office playing Game Boy or reading while she faxed in orders and prepared the next season's line. "Your mother works very hard for you."
That work paid off. When I was 8, she bought us a house in the nice part of town. Our first nights there, we blasted Motown—Smokey, the Temptations—and danced like fools in the living room, her shimmering brown hair horizontal as we twirled.
Every summer we took a two-week vacation to a faraway country like Thailand, China, or Hungary—an education for us both. And after I graduated from high school, she put me through college.
In our small Utah town, where the Rockwellian, patriarchal family ruled and one religion dominated, Lynda stood out. She was a single mother who not only worked but made good money, didn't go to church, voted Democrat, traveled the world, and read 100 books a year. She was viewed by some as a beacon of hope and by others as a threat to the community.
We felt the glances. People spoke in "poor you" subtext. Certain kids weren't allowed to hang out with me. But I never once heard my mom complain about what she faced then and still faces today. I have, however, seen her help others cope with their own hurdles. Like when we'd deliver food to a man dying of AIDS. Or visit a women's shelter, offering time and empathy. Once we picked up an elderly Navajo woman hitchhiking outside Shiprock, New Mexico, and drove her to her hogan deep in the Navajo Nation.
People ask me what it was like to grow up without a father. I used to say I didn't really know because I had nothing to compare it to. But I've come to realize my answer shows just how adept my mom was at creating comfort, stability, and knowledge, pulling double duty as both mother and father. I now only say, "I have a really good mom."
I never regretted not having a dad talk to me about standing up for myself—because I had a 5'3", 110-pound pit bull in my corner. My mom once shoved a 180-pound guy who cut into our movie line. And who needs a father running the sidelines when I have a mother who wouldn't let me win in horse and worked overtime so we could have season tickets to the Stockton-and-Malone Utah Jazz?
The downfall of some fathers is that they are men, and men don't ask for help. From my mother I learned that not asking for help is self-centered. She recognized her weaknesses. When I wanted to learn outdoorsy, "manly" stuff, for example, she signed me up for Scouts and kept after me until I earned Eagle Scout. "Finish what you started," she'd say once I'd reached my teenage years and was more interested in girls and cars than tying knots and building lean-tos.
When I wanted to go fishing, she'd pass me off to her father—a businessman who inspired her work ethic—who'd get a speeding ticket on every trip and pull more trout out of high-country streams than I could believe.
My mom and I have always had each other's back. I never knew when we struggled financially, how she felt about my dad leaving, or the trials she faced in our community. I, too, gave her an edited version of my own issues because I didn't want her to worry. But two things happened over the past few years that drew us closer.
First, I realized that I have the family drinking bones, a condition that leads a man to believe his world will be perfect after the next drink. She was the first person I called. "You're not a bad person," she said. "You're just a sick person. Here's what I did when I was in your situation. . ." In our hours of conversation afterward, she delivered empathy and advice in a nonjudgmental way that let me know she was there for me, but that this was my journey and I wasn't that damn special. I now understand that I don't have to worry whether I can stop drinking abruptly if I don't start drinking in the first place.
Last May she called to tell me she had cancer. For the first time, I saw a chink in her armor. She said she was afraid of what she'd see at the hospital, that she was tired from all the chemicals in her body and angry that her beautiful hair was falling out.
I gave whatever advice I could and told her when her thoughts were getting ahead of her. I've been able to return, in a small way, all the help she's given me. Cancer didn't get my mom, but it sure did kill our filters.
As men, we think we can control everything. I now realize that it's not only okay to be vulnerable, but that embracing your powerlessness is necessary for emotional and spiritual growth. It allows you to quit fighting when you're beat, and cures you of the notion that your way is the only way.
When I try to understand the ultimate promise of my mother, I'm left with the idea that you need to bet on and strengthen yourself so that you can improve the lives of others. She placed a bet on herself: that she could get clean, build a business, and be a good parent. Then she tipped the odds in her favor by working her hardest, and—most important—paying it forward.
Seeing her live out this idea recently gave me the strength to leave a high-profile magazine job and move across the country to teach in college. So now, happy with my choice, I remember a lesson she taught me: When the cards fall your way, don't forget to stop and dance to a little Motown.