Wanda Zoeller (left) told her story to her partner, Susan Herndon, in Louisville, Ky.
Wanda Zoeller (left) told her story to her partner, Susan Herndon, in Louisville, Ky. StoryCorps
Wanda Zoeller, the youngest of six children, was so poor growing up that her family had to keep borrowing a light bulb from one room to light another. Zoeller says her mother, who was the most important person in her life, made sure they didn't feel poor.
"I think I had the greatest mom in the world," the Louisville, Ky., native says. "I didn't realize we were poor probably until I was a teenager. And I attribute that to my mother.
"She always kept a nice house. And I could remember times sitting in the dark and of course [being] kids, it was a game for us. But we had the choice between food or utilities.
"So if we had a lamp in the living room and wanted a lamp in the bedroom, we'd take this light bulb out of the living room and carry it to the bedroom. Everybody had one or two light bulbs that moved around the whole house."
It became a family joke. "My dad would always add to the grocery list when we were growing up, 'light bulbs and toilet paper.' Mom would never get the light bulbs or the toilet paper because you'd have to get food instead."
Her mother, Ethel Zoeller, "pretty much let me do whatever I wanted to do. And I'm sure there's a lot of things I did she probably preferred she didn't know about. But she never hit us or whipped us."
But there were times when Wanda Zoeller wishes her mother would have "just spanked me" instead of just telling her she was "disappointed."
"She sat down and basically taught us that there's consequences to everything you do, and if you can live with those consequences, then go ahead and make those decisions."
When her mother died five years ago, "the whole family was with her."
"I was laying in the bed next to her, holding her and telling her it was OK to let go because I knew it was probably hard for her to let go of us. So we had to make sure she knew we were going to be OK. And the very last thing she said to us was that she loved us. She was a huge influence in my life."
Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.