I didn't have a mother growing up. I had five.
The last time I saw my mom, I was 7. It was a Monday in April, the first official day of spring break, and my brother, sister and I were spending the day at our Aunt Rita's house while my parents worked. A day of babysitting turned into an overnight, and my mom rushed in on her lunch break to drop off clothes for us. She remembered my brother's ALF duffel bag and my sister's "hugga" pillow, as she called it. She ate peas off my plate while Rita's back was turned. Our conversation and our goodbye were insignificant and unmemorable, as they often are when you don't realize they'll be your last.
That night, while my brother, sister and I slept safely on Rita's pullout sofa, across town, our family home caught fire. Our parents never made it out. Tuesday morning found me an orphan. A little girl without a daddy. A daughter without a mother.
In the immediate aftermath of my parents' deaths, I longed for my mom. I missed the function of her, the role she played in my life. When I got violently ill from the shock, I wanted her to bring me flat 7-Up. When I woke up with recurring nightmares, tangled in sheets and panting for breath, I wanted her to soothe me back to sleep. When I needed to buy a dress for the funeral, it was her hand I longed to hold as we trudged through department stores.
I just wanted my mom. It's a feeling that hasn't waned much in the past 26 years. Fortunately, I wasn't alone in those moments. There was an army of women surrounding me, taking care of my needs.
My grandparents, being the poster children for Irish Catholic immigrants in the mid-20th century, had 12 kids — six boys and six girls — so there was no shortage of family to care for us. My mom's five sisters didn't even take a moment's pause before jumping in and performing her duties. They dabbed my head with a washcloth to ward off the sickness and rocked me to sleep to stave off the nightmares. They led me through department stores to replace all that was lost in the fire, and even let me help pick out the dress my mom would be buried in. They all had daughters of their own. They knew how to mother.
As I got older, I faced a new grief. It was no longer about what my mom did, but who she was. This time, I grieved for the mother I would never know. In those moments, my aunts were there too. And they had something that could never be communicated with an old story or photograph. They all had a part of my mom with them. In them. They were six unique patterns cut from the same cloth.
Instead of being raised by one woman with all of her strengths and flaws, I had the distinct privilege of gleaning wisdom from five mothers. Margie, whose face I can't picture without seeing a smile, taught me to greet every one of life's unexpected surprises — even the most trying ones — with joy. Even as she battled MS and later terminal cancer, she was light and laughter and hope all the time.
Rosie has always possessed an unlimited supply of enthusiasm for even the most unimpressive of feats. When I started a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Club, she volunteered to make the colored face masks. When she read the first book I ever wrote at the age of 8 — a riveting tale about a cow and a mouse, aptly titled "The Cow and the Mouse" — she practically submitted it for Pulitzer consideration. And when I decided to try my hand at writing for real, she read everything I wrote and piled on endless praise, even when I definitely didn't deserve it. Her endless support inspired me to be fearless in my pursuits.
Eileen taught me to have fun and have faith, even in the most desperate of circumstances. Because if you can't make up secret languages or perform sock-skating routines in your kitchen, what's the point of life, anyway?
Rita imparted the importance of making your voice heard. As the youngest of 12 kids, this was often a literal directive, as being loudest is the best way to get anyone's attention, but she also demonstrated the importance of letting people know how you feel. Life's too short to let things go unsaid.
And then there was Theresa, my mom's closest confidante and our legal guardian. Theresa is the craziest lady I've ever met, and also one of the most loving. She got her wardrobe at kiosks in the mall, her home decor from trash cans and garage sales. We had half of a boat positioned to look as though it was sinking into our front yard, and a tuxedo-clad skeleton in an old-fashioned barber chair in the middle of our living room. She had a "you'll live" approach to injuries, and a "who the hell cares?" response to boy woes. Through the most unconventional of methods, she taught me to be a strong and confident woman, content with who I am and unconcerned with other people's opinions.
I miss my mom every day, but I'm so grateful for all of the women I've been able to learn from along the way. Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there, biological or otherwise, who help scared little girls become brave women.