Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

A Mother's Courage

In a special guest commentary, the program's executive producer, Marie Nelson reflects on Thanksgiving and how her holiday experience has helped her gain new insight and appreciation of her mother.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now a special guest commentator. Every week I try to share some of my thoughts on the issues of the day in our Can I Just Tell You essays. But this week, the usually elusive captain of our Tell Me More team, executive producer Marie Nelson, has a few thoughts she would like to share. Take it away, Marie.

MARIE NELSON: I hosted Thanksgiving at my house this year. So can someone just tell me why I didn't get to roast the turkey that served as the centerpiece of the meal? I have two words for you. Mommy dearest. No, my mother isn't the spitting image of Joan Crawford. She doesn't whip out wire hangers from the closet in a fit of rage, quite the opposite. She's the kind of loving, doting, long-suffering mother that most people dream of having. So this year, she let me think I was hosting the holidays, that I had finally grown up from the kid's table, when in reality she did all the heavy lifting. This was not always the dynamic of our relationship.

I'm one of 8 or 28 kids, depending on how many foster sisters and brothers you include in the count. My family is from West Africa, and we settled in the United States after a devastating military coup. We arrived carrying loads of loss of loved ones and of hope and home. In the crossing, I lost something else - my mommy. She was the leader of our clan when many of the adult men in our family were detained in the coup's aftermath, and my parents became separated. So my mommy transformed into our own Harriet Tubman. She helped her sisters and cousins and their cousins relocate their children to safety. Mommy had studied in the United States, so she showed them the ropes. And together they all adapted to their new roles as heads of fatherless households.

At one point, we lived in a nice suburban house with nearly 30 women and children. Whenever people remark about the fact that I never learned how to ride a bike or swim or roller skate, I think back on those days and remember a childhood consumed by the more important demands of survival. Instead of childish pursuits, I learned to cook entire meals before I was 10. And I knew the humiliations of borrowing sugar and flour and eggs because we could not afford to go to the store, and of telling the landlord that, really, we'd get the rent to him in just a couple of days. I'd later come to understand that mommy suffered far greater daily humiliations to keep our family intact. But at that time, and in that moment, all I wanted was a mother's protection and a normal childhood.

In the years since, mommy has done everything to make me feel like a kid again. When she calls me on the phone, and she says things like, how's mommy's little baby? I still find it unsettling to be called anyone's baby, fiercely independent woman that I am. But I must admit that secretly I kind of like it. It lets me know that she wants to be my mommy again. So when she invites all of my siblings and foster siblings and their kids for a pre-Thanksgiving sleepover, takes command of my holiday meal, and even brings her own pots and decorations, I gladly take my seat at the kids' table. Can I just tell you? It's the best seat in the house.

MARTIN: That was Tell Me More's multitalented executive producer, she made me say that, Marie Nelson. And that's our program for today.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues