She’s the toughest person I’ve ever known. She’s a breast cancer survivor. She lives with Lupus, as well as a rare condition known as Castleman Disease. But there’s more to this strong woman. Quite a bit more.
In the early 1970s, this strong woman found herself suddenly homeless as a young mother with two children in Hartford Connecticut. It was there her husband chose to abandon them, over 3,000 miles from the family’s hometown of San Diego, California. She knew she had to do something, so she stood tall and exclaimed, “We got to find us a job!”
It would have been so easy for her to abandon her two children to lighten her burden. But she was not such a person to do this. She was determined to continue on while keeping together what was left of her family.
She pounded the pavement, with her kids in tow. She interviewed for whoever would listen until she found a job. It was at a Jewish rest home. At the end of the interview, the woman who hired her began to walk away, then turned back and asked, “Did you say you have two kids and no place to stay?”
“Yes,” the strong woman answered.
“I have a place for you.” This kind woman took them home with her. She slept on the couch, giving up her room.
That night, the strong woman shared a bed with her children. The kids slept at the top, while she curled up at the bottom. Just like that, she had a job and her family a place to sleep.
The little family soon found a place of their own. But things got tougher when her son ― the oldest at 11 years old ― lost $10 while picking up a few items at the corner store. It threw the family’s already meager budget totally out of whack. They had to survive a week on sandwiches. We’re not talking the fancy kind. Just your basic bologna and cheese. Even to do that, the strong woman had to sacrifice her weekly bus fair. To get to work, she’d walk, while hitching a ride where she could.
After about a year, they made their way back home. They returned to their beloved San Diego.
In 1977, this strong woman began working for the San Diego Unified School District. Initially, she was basically on call, working as many hours as she could. Eventually, the hours would increase. She worked this way for about seven years, learning as much as she could until she became a permanent employee with full benefits.
She moved up the ladder until she reached the position she now holds: Food Services Area Supervisor. At that post, she oversees a number of schools, ensuring the respective cafeterias are efficiently run. She’s held that position for the last 18 years.
Along the way, she was able to fulfill her special calling. For 25 years, she was a foster parent. In that role, she was involved in rebuilding the lives of dozens of young girls. The children in her charge were some of the most challenging. Amazingly, many would return after they’d reached adulthood and share Thanksgiving or Christmas.
For most of them, she was the one person they could count on. The only one they felt had loved them.
But make no mistakes. She was tough. She believed in rules. Once in a while, one of her girls would look in my direction, as if looking for a “lifeline”. I’d simply give them the answer they weren’t looking for. “Don’t look at me. Those are the rules I had to follow.” Then, with a chuckle, I’d say, “Welcome to the family.”
As she ended her time in foster care, she adopted the last child she had. Her name was Victoria. She became her “special one” as she continued to nurture her. She even enrolled her in college where she happily attended until life threw her a curve. Victoria became seriously ill. She had lupus.
In December of 2015, in San Diego, she passed away. She was 25 years old. She bid goodbye to this world as her family and friends stood around her holding hands and singing hymns. As a tribute to her short life, each family member of legal age wears a tattoo for her.
But this strong woman had lost her special one. Her baby was gone.
No matter how tough life gets. No matter how many tears she must shed. Or how much pain she’s had to bear, this strong woman musters the energy to fight on. She has other children and grandchildren who still feed off of her strength.
In case you haven’t guessed, this strong woman is my mom. Etter Elliott.
On June 25, 2016, my mom was awarded the 2015-2016 Administrators Association San Diego City Schools Distinguished Leader Award.
According to the organization, “Distinguished Leaders are selected for their work skills, their interaction with staff members and co-workers, their leadership qualities, their volunteerism and community involvement, including participation in district activities.”
My mom simply doesn’t like accepting any type of public recognition. She prefers to be a silent soldier. But after 39 years of dedicated service, this single mother, who once found herself on streets with her family, has allowed herself to let her guard down to accept her well-deserved reward.
With all of her trials and tribulations, she continues to work her program. She feeds the elderly, she still molds young lives in her own way and helps those in need.
She shows up early every single day to the office and outworks folks half her age. She regularly carries thousands and thousands of sick hours on the books. When she was “forced” to take time off for her breast cancer surgery, it drove her crazy to be off of work for so long.
I once asked my mom why we weren’t on the street as long as so many others. She paused and looked at me like I should have known the answer myself. “Because I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
If you know my mom, you’d also understand it was a silly question indeed.
Lawrence is an author and contributor to the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. He’s also a member of Toastmasters International. He’s lived in interesting places, including over 6 years in Germany. Click here to read more from him at The Huffington Post, or visit LawrenceElliott.com.