We had solemnly agreed we weren’t going to cry that day. Mama and I promised each other this. We even shook on it.
I was not yet a man, but I would be married within 48 hours, so I was close to being one. It was my final day at home. I had packed the last of my belongings in cardboard boxes and was moving into a rat-trap apartment where my future wife and I would live after the honeymoon.
My old bedroom looked vacant. The walls were bare. And this was feeling weird.
No more poster of John Wayne hanging over my bed. No more desk with my manual typewriter. No more piles of dirty clothes awaiting the laundry fairy.
It must have been odd for my mother, too. Her hardest years of single-motherhood were over. No more overflowing dirty dishes. No more annoying sounds of her son practicing guitar during the wee hours. No more stocking a refrigerator that always teetered on emptiness because of a certain young man who ate everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.
My leaving also meant there would be no more moments of minor disappointment caused by a wayward son. No longer would I come home late on an occasional Saturday night with my head down and beer on my breath. No longer would she stand in the hallway, showing disapproval. No more mending my slacks before Sunday morning services, then shoving me out the door to repent for last Saturday night.
No more suppers at her table.
I loaded the last box into my truck and it all felt so final. We stood in the driveway staring at each other. We were two adults now.
“It’s only a ten-minute drive,” I said. “Our apartment isn’t far.”
She smiled. Brave face. This woman who had survived her troubled husband’s reckless death. This woman who held a Bachelor of Science, but also cleaned houses, and worked shifts at Chick-fil-A, manning deep-fryers and telling lunchtime customers it was a pleasure to serve them. Who crocheted scarves, hats, and mittens at Christmastime. Who always had a book in her hand.
She straightened my collar and said, “Yes, I know you won’t be far. But it feels far.”
We remained strong. Which was quite unlike us. But then, there was that solemn agreement.
Even so, it was difficult to hold a stiff upper lip because if there is one thing she passed down to me, it is the gift of tears.
My mother cried easily. All it took was a small thing to set her off. Her tears were never bitter. Her tears were spent on joy, tenderness, and affection. They were honest tears. Not sour ones. She’d had enough of those.
Whenever she cried, her face would turn plum-colored and she would remove her glasses. Because what followed was a municipal dam explosion. It was never light weeping. We do not lightly weep in my family. We snort. We honk. We blow our noses on our shirttails.
Some mothers taught their boys how to iron their own shirts. Others taught their children which side of the plate the fork goes on. Mine taught me to cry openly at “Little House on the Prairie” when Mary Ingalls loses her eyesight.
Don’t misunderstand me. Mama did not believe in whining. Nor did she believe in shedding tears after lost baseball games. My mother taught me how to cry during benchmark moments of life. At weddings, memorials, graduations, and during the throes of rib-cracking laughter.
This is because she saw beauty in life, in poetry, in the Psalms, in cheap romance novels, and in Paul Newman. She believed in rescuing strays. And she saw eternal value in classic movies like “Doctor Zhivago,” “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” and “Lilies of the Field,” which is her favorite.
But that day we held our saltwater. Solemn agreements are not to be broken among solemn people. We remained stoic. There would be no snotty noses, no big scene. Just goodbyes.
My God. This was goodbye.
I slammed the tailgate to my truck. I had all my boxes. I had my typewriter. I had the tweed jacket which once belonged to my father. She wanted me to have that.
It’s funny. After he died, people used to call her strong. But I never understood it. Because I was like all children: charmingly ignorant, and a little selfish.
How is it that we can know so little about ourselves, and even less about our parents? How is it that the children of politicians don’t know their parents are famous? How is it that some kids grow up impoverished and never know they were poor until years later? How could the child of a strong woman not know of her endurance?
But watching her, there in that driveway, while my truck idled, and her son was about to leave home to go play Grown-Ups, I did see it. The strength.
“I’d better get going,” I said.
“Yes, you’d better.”
“This is so weird, leaving.”
“I’ll miss you, Mama.”
We were both treading on thin ice now.
“I’ll miss you, too. Every day.”
“But I’ll still come around.”
She smiled. “Of course you will.”
“And things won’t really be that different, you know.”
She didn’t answer that one.
We moved forward to embrace. And I fell into a rabbit hole of the human mind. I saw our shared history flickering on my brain’s silver screen. Our difficult lives. Our young laughter. Our mistakes. The black cloud of heaviness that nearly swallowed us after my father’s end. The way she muscled our family through hell without retreating an inch. Always moving forward. Always onward. Always fighting. Always cheerful. Always.
And in that average driveway, on an average afternoon, we broke our solemn agreement.
Happy birthday, Mama.
teresasnipesmecom - December 13, 2020 6:31 am
Precious! Thank you for your words about your Mama and her strength. My Mama was strong, too and I miss her so much.
Deborah L Blount - December 13, 2020 6:35 am
Happy Birthday Sean’s Mother!
Anthony - December 13, 2020 7:05 am
Thank you Sean’s Mama. and Happy Birthday
Gary - December 13, 2020 8:42 am
Happy Birthday, to you from me. Happy Birthday!
Penn Wells - December 13, 2020 8:49 am
No question about it: I like your mom. ❤️🎉
SUSAN E JACOBI-JOHNSON - December 13, 2020 10:24 am
Wow, did this one resonate! Having my kids fly out of the nest was so much more painful than I ever anticipated. Having one marry changed everything in a day. I’m fortunate that neither is too far away, and treasure the relationships we have. Your mama is a marvel, Sean. I was in tears just reading about your departure. Happy Birthday, Sean’s Mama!
chris nischan - December 13, 2020 10:55 am
yes Happy Birthday indeed!!
Brenda Turner-Griffin - December 13, 2020 10:56 am
You are a great son and you are both blessed to have each other! Happy Birthday, Sean’s Mom. Be very kind to yourself this year!
Cynthia Harmon - December 13, 2020 11:22 am
Happy birthday, Mrs. Dietrich! You are a special woman. 🎂🎉🎈🏆
Barbara - December 13, 2020 11:41 am
I’m glad you wrote about your amazing Mama and the memories you shared. She did a most excellent job bringing up her children and enduring the struggles and valleys on life’s journey. Admiration and Happy Birthday blessings, Mama.
Jan Bruck - December 13, 2020 12:58 pm
If reading this column doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, then I wonder what would. That you two have come out on the other side of a tragic situation with such strength and love for each other is such a blessing for you both. Much admiration for both of you, and a very happy birthday to your awesome Mama!
Gary - December 13, 2020 1:08 pm
Tell her Happy Birthday !
John in Texas - December 13, 2020 1:09 pm
WOW! Just wow.
Happy birthday Sean’s momma. May you have an especially blessed day.
Grace - December 13, 2020 1:10 pm
Renee Stephenson - December 13, 2020 1:11 pm
Beautiful writing once again! Happy birthday to a very strong woman!
Debbie g - December 13, 2020 1:21 pm
Happy birthday dear Sean’s mother You are an amazing lady!!!!
Gayle Dodds - December 13, 2020 1:29 pm
beautiful just beautiful had me crying too
Connie - December 13, 2020 1:32 pm
Happy birthday to your momma. She sounds wonderful. She raised a good man. Love and hugs.
Diane Toth - December 13, 2020 1:34 pm
Melissa Armstrong - December 13, 2020 1:39 pm
I’m glad I didn’t make a solemn vow not to cry reading this.♥️
Jo Ann - December 13, 2020 1:46 pm
Happy Birthday, Sean’s Mama!! Hope you have a wonderful day! You must be so proud of the boy you raised. We all depend on him to brighten our day, every day. ( we all in my family are ugly cryers, too. No movie crying for us!! When we cry everyone knows it!) Happy Sunday
Margaret E Odell - December 13, 2020 1:52 pm
I’d give anything to be able to say “Happy Birthday” or “Goodbye” to my mom just one more time!
Anne C - December 13, 2020 1:54 pm
The municipal dam just exploded! I can relate to much of your story…my mother was such a woman as yours.
Jan - December 13, 2020 2:02 pm
Love this! Happy Birthday to your Mom. She raised a fine man!
Alice - December 13, 2020 2:13 pm
Dear Sean you managed to make me cry again’Happy Birthday to your mom❤️❤️
Bob Rennick - December 13, 2020 2:16 pm
Thank you Mrs. Dietrich for giving us Sean and I wish you a very special Happy Birthday.
RCK - December 13, 2020 2:20 pm
Cheers to your mama! May this column be a tribute to all the strong mothers out there – including mine. She too raised me as a single mother and died when I was 33… in 1977, 43 years ago. I still think about her and bless and thank her often, as I hardly ever did as a self-centered, thoughtless young person.
Sharon Brock - December 13, 2020 2:23 pm
Happy birthday Mrs. Dietrich. I hope you have a wonderful day.
Bob Brenner - December 13, 2020 2:25 pm
What a beautiful ode to a special lady. Well done Sean. Mom’s are wonderful. I miss mine terribly ❤️.
Cheryl - December 13, 2020 2:29 pm
Cheers to moms who taught us to be brave but cry at the right things. Happiest of birthdays Mrs. Dietrich!
Darlene Manning - December 13, 2020 2:43 pm
We learn two things from our parents
How to be and
How NOT to be
You learned tenderness and heartfelt feelings from your Mom. You’re a lucky man. Happy Birthday to a good woman who obviously has had many challenges in life
lanierh2 - December 13, 2020 2:53 pm
Happy birthday to your Mom! I hope you do drop by to see her often.
Gwen Monroe - December 13, 2020 3:26 pm
No matter the circumstances, it’s hard on the heart to watch your children fly. But it must be. And I don’t know the saying exactly but it’s something like A Daughter Is Forever. A Son Until He Takes A Wife. And that’s the way it should be also, but still……….I love reading about your Mom. She reminds me of my sister. Both strong. Yessiree.
Cathy Weaver - December 13, 2020 3:46 pm
Wonderful, Sean! Happy Birthday to your dear Mama. ❤️ I miss my mama every day. I miss her dimple, her laugh, her gift for learning the life story of every waitress who became her friend and her made up word “Gads!”
Geri - December 13, 2020 3:53 pm
Your best yet, Sean. I’m so proud of you.
Heidi - December 13, 2020 4:07 pm
My mama passed 22 years ago at age 67. I look back on it now and there’s so much I would like to ask her. About her life. Her aspirations. What she dreamed about. When you are day to day living, raising kids, your parents are well…your parents. I never had a chance to have those talks with her. I truly regret it and miss it.
Susan - December 13, 2020 4:39 pm
Beautiful Sean! Happy birthday Mrs. Dietrich!! You raised a very good man!! ♥️
Christina - December 13, 2020 4:46 pm
Happy birthday Mama of the South! Your resilience, deep love and tenderness are such gifts to the world. We find them here everyday.
Jack - December 13, 2020 5:03 pm
Nothing like a real mama! Tough as nails and sweet as sugar. Most times the best friend a son or daughter ever has.
Good one my friend, good one.
Beth - December 13, 2020 5:08 pm
Now I am crying.
Susie, as well - December 13, 2020 5:20 pm
This…what a wonderful and heartfelt gift for your Mom! Happy Birthday to Sean’s Mama.
Linda Moon - December 13, 2020 5:33 pm
When we Mamas are adults and watch our children become young adults, its hard not to cry. I see beauty in your Mama, Sean. I see beauty in those three movies she values, too. And, I see her in someone I love who also raised two fine sons after their father’s reckless death. Happy Birthday, Sean’s Mama. You did a fine job raising your boy!
Tom - December 13, 2020 5:39 pm
I know women are stronger than men. Happy Birthday strong young lady.
Hazel from Huntsville - December 13, 2020 5:41 pm
Happy birthday Sean’s mama! I remember that day in my life so well, however, we didn’t hold back the waterfall. Miss her so much!
Thank you Sean for being the loving son and sharing that love with all of us. Your mama is and should be your hero.
Christine - December 13, 2020 6:11 pm
Happy Birthday Sean’s Mama. Many blessings on your special December birthday.
You two are softies in the best way possible. Thank you for all your hard work and sacrifice in raising 2 wonderful kids.
Bill - December 13, 2020 6:26 pm
I totally underestimated my parents, especially my mother. She did more for our family, my dad, my sister, and me. After we were in school, my mother returned to work she had done before in a local furniture store. It was amazing and she had dinner for the family each day made us lunches for school. Plus she did the other household duties as needed. She was just amazing person.
Suzanne Moore - December 13, 2020 6:41 pm
Just beautiful, Sean.
Tammy S. - December 13, 2020 7:27 pm
Happiest Birthday to your Mama!
I have a son, and this story was so touching. Thank you once again, Sean.
Patricia Gibson - December 13, 2020 7:30 pm
Happy Birthday, 🎂🎉 Mrs Dietrich
Rhonda Hooks - December 13, 2020 7:47 pm
And every day
Dee Cullen - December 13, 2020 7:51 pm
Christopher William Spencer - December 13, 2020 9:01 pm
Happy Birthday Mama Dietrich!! Thank you for your personal faith in God who blessed you with the wisdom and strength to get through all that life threw at you. Thank you for raising Sean into the wonderful man he has become and the great writer he is. Both of you bless us all with the stories of your lives.
May God bless you with many more healthy and Happy Birthdays and all of them with Sean and Jamie.
Love in Christ,
Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder - December 13, 2020 9:54 pm
Happy Birthday to your very special Mama!
What a beautiful ODE to her, a remarkable steel magnolia…
Guess by moving across the ocean, that teaches you early on and thanks to GOD in time, to see the true value of both parents. By distancing you literally from them; you get closer—to the soul that is!
Strange enough, I’m the ONLY one that said her farewell to my Mom and later to my Dad. Phone calls were more than just talking, I could get so much out of their intonation, how they felt, how their health was.
Just by really listening! Those that have their Parents nearby, obviously never really listen and not notice any decline… Having visited the 8,000 km some 66 times by plane, and then really visiting and listening. That Dad was almost exiting did not get noticed by my six siblings… Sadly so but I felt so happy that I followed my instincts and went timely, two weeks before he suddenly died. He’d talked about his death at length with us and was so ready, at age 98, no longer hanging on to reach 100…
Blessings for your Advent Season and your Mama taught you well—as your writings reveal to so many.
She can be oh so proud of herself and of you.
Melanie - December 14, 2020 12:59 am
Happy Birthday Ms Dietrich! 💝🎉🎀🎂🍰🧁🌸💐🌹🌺🎁🎈🎈🎈
Lydia - December 14, 2020 1:27 am
Thank you for sharing this.
Nancy M - December 14, 2020 3:55 am
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Dietrich
Linda - December 14, 2020 5:03 am
Love this one, Sean.
Miss my Mom
Verna Montgomery - December 14, 2020 7:09 am
…I just cried…💖
Margaret Cade - December 14, 2020 1:43 pm
Have mercy! That was beautiful! ❤️😢
Patricia A Schmaltz - December 14, 2020 2:55 pm
Tears of joy for you to know such love in your life.
Sara - December 14, 2020 3:13 pm
I read your column often. It comes to my email account and I read them as I have time and fee like a little inspiration. This is one of my favorites because I can actually feel the emotions you describe because they have been my own. My children’s father took his life when they were 7 and 4 years old. I was single for 9 years and worked more than one job on more than one occasion. I was determined to not let this terrible thing dictate our lives. I was only partially successful. But the point of this, is that an indescribable bond was formed between my girls and I because of our pain. And I know your mama having never met her…..and, you too.
Summer Hartzog - December 14, 2020 5:27 pm
Today is my momma’s birthday, too. She’s 84. This was such a beautiful tribute to your mom, and you (at nearly half my age) make a point I’ve only recently begun to understand myself, that being, we don’t really understand our parents until we’ve experienced some of what they have from a similar perspective. My own mom is living a unique experience I hope is over soon and selfishly hope to never fully understand. Living in a retirement home on lockdown these last 10 months, she experienced her first drive-by birthday party yesterday. She declared it her “best birthday ever!” having gotten to see from 6 feet away in a slow moving pickup a great-grandson she’d not yet met (asleep in his carseat), and grandchildren she’s not laid eyes on since March. Her name is Joy, and I never realized before now how perfectly her name describes her. Happy birthday to your momma and mine!
Kirk Rankin - December 14, 2020 7:12 pm
Might even be better than Lewis Grizzard’s stories about his mom.
Anne - December 15, 2020 3:12 am
What a wonderful tribute to your strong and sentimental Mom !
Sandi. - December 19, 2020 7:38 pm
Sean, somehow I completely overlooked reading this until today! Happy Belated Birthday to your wonderful mother. She is a strong woman, a sturdy rock in your life. How fortunate you and your sister are to still have her in your lives. God bless her abundantly.
Judy - December 20, 2020 3:00 am
From all you have shared about your mother, I know she is an amazing person. Little did you realize when you fell in love with Jamie, you were looking for another amazing person to love you. You succeeded and so did your Mama – she showed you the way. Happy Birthday to your Mama. I hope she is celebrated well.
Julie - January 5, 2021 6:07 pm
What a gift, Sean…to open your heart to us, and share such innermost feelings. I think you know by now, that we, your readers, love you unconditionally, and with a passion for soaking up everything you write. The good, the funny, the sad, the tragic, the wise, the bittersweet…ALL of it❣️ I take from this an insight to the similar feelings that my very young groom must have been going through on the morning of our wedding day. Now I have a better understanding and appreciation of his bond with his Mom. “Thank You” doesn’t even BEGIN to cover my gratitude💝