Many of us look forward to this Sunday as a day to celebrate Mother and honor connection. For others, however, it's a day to accept Mother as she is and honor reconciliation.
After hearing Mary Williams speak on her recently published memoir, "The Lost Daughter," I believe it can also be a day of tremendous gratitude.
Williams began a recent presentation at Antigone Books on North Fourth Avenue by reading the first few pages from her memoir. She was going home to Oakland, Calif., to get reacquainted with her biological mother after almost 30 years. Williams is a resilient woman who had a tough childhood and adolescence. But a stroke of luck, combined with her ability to run with it, would later turn her life around.
Born in 1967, Williams was by parental and community involvement a daughter of the Black Panthers, which originated in Oakland. One of the main goals of the Panthers was to combat police brutality against blacks. After a confrontation with police, her father was imprisoned for seven years. Her mother, left alone with six children to raise, became a welder. After she was injured at work, the family was forced to accept public assistance.
Nurturing family interactions were not part of her home life.
Williams wrote that she never felt affection. "There was a sense of duty to keep us clothed and fed, but never kisses and hugs and I love you's." Her mother started drinking heavily.
Williams felt Oakland was a dangerous place to be a female and tried to hide her maturing body with loose-fitting, boyish clothes as a safety measure. She was always afraid.
Enter actress and political activist Jane Fonda, who, along with her then-husband Tom Hayden, opened Laurel Springs Children's Camp, which focused on theater arts, in the hills of Santa Barbara.
Fonda envisioned Laurel Springs as a camp for youngsters from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. At age 11, Williams left Oakland for the first time in her life and headed to camp, a few hundred miles and a world away.
She soon got Fonda's attention.
"There was something about her," Fonda reminisced in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. "Everyone loved her. She exuded a joy and a curiosity and an intelligence. …"
Williams returned to Laurel Springs for the next two years. Drama was her favorite activity. Attending the musical "Dream Girls" inspired her to seriously consider becoming an actress. Williams started going alone to auditions, one of which turned out not to be an audition at all, but a sexual assault.
After that horrific incident, Williams began to shut down. She wrote in her book, "I gave up the fantasy that girls like me could aspire to anything more than early pregnancies, violent relationships and welfare. My attacker rendered me sullied and unredeemable."
Nevertheless, Williams returned to Laurel Springs at age 15. Counselors noticed the camper was no longer the outgoing, laughing girl of summers past but "a candle on the verge of flickering out." When that news got to Fonda, she made Williams an offer: If she improved her grades the following year and got the approval of her biological mother, she could live indefinitely with Fonda and her family.
At age 16, Williams left Oakland behind and went to live in Fonda's hacienda in Santa Monica. Williams especially remembers the meaningful conversations between her and Fonda on their weekend trips to Laurel Springs.
With Fonda's encouragement and financial help, Williams entered Pitzer College, from which she graduated. She also has a master's degree in public health.
Williams has challenged herself in many ways, including hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, starting a foundation to help the so-called "Lost Boys" of Sudan, working for five months in Antarctica and much more.
Living today in the Southwest, Williams is busy promoting her new book. The relationship with her biological mother is a work in progress.
As for Fonda, she says, "She has been and is an amazing mother to me. I love and trust her, and she is the most important person in my life."
As Mother's Day approaches, what greater tribute could there be?
Sources: "The Prodigal Daughter," Mary Williams, O Magazine. February, 2011; Oprah Winfrey interview with Jane Fonda and Mary Williams on OWN, April 7, 2013. Email Barbara Russek at Babette2@comcast.net