My Second Mother: When Someone Steps Up Like Family Never Did

All of us are blessed with at least one of our birth parents. Sometimes, luck will allow us to be blessed with another parent figure. Someone who comes seemingly out of the blue, either by fate or chance, and then takes us under their wing.

Joanie, a beautiful, intelligent, and generous woman, helped me get through the dark cloud that had infiltrated every part of my body.

As a child of a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, my mother’s past of suffering and trauma filled my own life with perpetual sadness, which I found difficult to eviscerate.

Our house was quiet and there were constant stories of my maternal relatives’ experiences in World War II, and the Shoah. The happy childhood that I felt I had was mine, but the fear of war filled our home.

Although grateful for my parents, I felt the emotional burden of my mother’s scarred and tattered life to ultimately be too much, and I fled at age nineteen to a coastal California town to begin a college life. It was exciting to see the sea and sand at my doorstep, and I had new stories and experiences that were not related to the Holocaust.

As I grew up, I was curious about why my childhood wasn’t filled with happy memories and a loving family.

In every photo that was taken of me by my Polish father—who had hoped to become a photographer but instead found himself bitterly working in low-paying factory jobs, never with anyone who appreciated his creative intelligence—I look depressed and off-kilter, as if the vagaries of life have already turned me to the dark side.

My mother has put my auburn-colored ringlets up high on my head. It is a European-inspired do. And I’m dressed in clothes that are too old for my age, dark and unflattering.

In those pictures it looks as if I am always on the brink of tears, under the impress of her reminders that I should not be pouting, or acting “beleidig” (the German word for angry), and should be grateful for my very life when so many had died during World War II. 

When I was finally able to leave the house of despair that was my family, I felt I had been given a second chance at life, although throwing off the yoke of depression would be a battle I’d fight my entire existence. It still pulls at me with its relentless and intractable force, not stayed or mitigated by a battery of allegedly efficacious anti-anxiety/anti-depressant meds in conjunction with weekly psychotherapy.

Looking back on the years, they blur. However I can recall some of the moments when I lived in academia with affection.

My journey took me through college, graduate school and three years of law school. None of these venues ever provided me with an opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors parents or people who lived daily with the pain of the Holocaust remembrances.

My inherited history of pain and not pleasure had taught me to be comfortable with myself, to accept the world around me, to learn to live in harmony. My companions were those who could laugh easily, and who could absorb the impostor I felt like I was.

My thirties were spent in Berkeley, California. I worked in the legal industry. Then, in my forties, someone changed my life. He would redefine what an intentional family can do to benefit me.  

Joanie Arnesty came into my life at a now-defunct community event and was the mother I hoped to be. She is full of contagious laughter, effervescence, and bright hopes.

The first time we met I recall her saying “Such a beautiful girl you are! It’s amazing! That gorgeous mane would make anyone swoon. What about a law degree? It’s beautiful and intelligent! Well, that’s the icing on the cake!”

My parents did not trade in compliments, but I still longed to be greeted with a smile and a hug. With my own son, I have emphasized the importance of being around what I call “encouragers”—those who not only give you emotional support but do it with a fiery and unrelenting vengeance. They are people who can bring magic to any situation and make you wiser.

Joanie, who was my mom’s age, was the physical embodiment of the epiphany I needed and became the female parent who helped me navigate the sudden storms and vicissitudes of life and celebrate the good times. 

She seemed to be able to overlook the negative effects of some of the turbulences in her life. Born of an out-ofwedlock pregnancies, she was lost to her mother. She was Jewish and worked as a nurse. At five, John Brown married a Catholic priest named John Brown.

Raised by her mother’s sister, she inherited her father’s red hair and storied charm and wit but never met or even saw a photo of him.

She married after high school and had three beautiful daughters. But there were also black eyes, beatings and teasing, so she was forced to leave behind her clothes and her children.

Joanie reminds me of the name of a movie. Molly Brown, The Insinkable MollyHer nickname was “Miss” and it turned out to perfectly describe her. As a single parent she had three children, and never had a boy in her family. All of them embodied her confidence and optimism.

They became university professors, optometrists, or pediatricians, after she watched. Their childhood saw her work as a baker, seamstress, babysitter, and baker. She lived an active but healthy life and never dwelled on her misfortunes.

Our friendship developed from an accidental meeting. I became comfortable sharing my insecurity and the things that made me feel uncomfortable in the familial environment I was raised in.

When I told my own mother one day that I wanted to be a writer, she yelled at me in German that this was “a stupid idea” and added “you have a lot of those.” I never forgave her for that outburst, and I still feel the sting of what it means to be deeply and disinterestedly misunderstood. 

I shared my mother’s words one time with Joanie, and this woman, who admittedly was not book-smart and tutored, said energetically to me, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. It is our purpose in life to share it. Pablo Picasso believed that. I saw it in a magazine and I cut the words out and put them on the refrigerator.”

And there they were on her old General Electric fridge, with magnets on each end, their wisdom illuminated in the midst of Safeway coupons and doctors’ business cards.

“You need to have faith in yourself and to follow your dream. You are a great writer, but you need to first and foremost believe that yourself.”

While I may have many faults, my greatest failing is not the inability of listening.

It is possible that our parents are not the right or most appropriate for us. However, we can seek out others who could fulfill this role. Joanie was my second mother. She encouraged me to believe that I was capable and worthy of the celebrations.

Her kindness and support helped me find my husband. She also supported me during a very difficult pregnancy and hosted an incredible baby shower. It featured a lot of homemade baked goods and delicious desserts.

It was clear that she could put her own personal and loving brand on every situation. My son, congestive cardiac failure, and other medical issues was her concern.

She once said to me “you’re my fourth daughter,” and my eyes filled with tears. Her buoyancy and enthusiasm helped me to get through difficult times.

My own mother, 800 miles away in Los Angeles, issued regular rebukes and continued her criticism, saying that I had ruined my life, remaining emotionally distant and mired in depression after my father’s passing.

Because her life was always in the way, she couldn’t see me. She was unable to see the joy in others, even herself. Her role as biological parent vanished into the background.

What I have taken from my own story is this: We don’t all have parents who can offer us the love and encouragement we need, but we can all search for a parent or a mentor to fill in the spaces where support is lacking. It’s not always easy to find a person who can fill that role, but there are lots of good people out there with love to give. All we have to do is open our hearts and eyes to see them.

For me, encouragement was essential and I needed someone to listen. My family had very little laughter, so I was in desperate need of some.

I remember seeing another quote on Joanie’s refrigerator that stood out, remarkable because it really captured the essence of who she was. This is what I kept in my notebook, a yellow postit note.

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is a strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.”

Frida Kallo (a Mexican artist) was the author. Joanie taught us the value of rising above any oppressive burdens in life, laughing loudly and choosing a path that is positive.

The photo of my son and I on her desk shows us both smiling, seemingly recovered from our battles— mine of a life filled with emotional turbulence and his of a successful fight with a life-endangering condition.

Years later, when I moved to central California, I wrote her a letter and told her that I was writing again, that I had returned to what I characterized as being a “wordsmith.” A week later I received a beautiful card and opened it to see the words imprinted in a careful and deliberate hand: “Always be yourself.  And be grateful for your gift and the ability to share it.”

It is not known if I can write well or if any criticism will help me to do so.  It is something I know, however, that my second mom, who was a loving and supportive mother, helped me to see the positive side of having her around. It was her enthusiasm and encouragement that restored my belief in the value of a loving family.

In the end it is not the biological bonds that necessarily provide succor and strength and understanding—there are other mothers and fathers to be found, intentionally or not, that can provide those qualities as well.   

This is to Joanie Archestys all over the globe who have saved the families of people emotionally hurt in combat and given us hope that we can continue to build new families and networks.

Anf if you haven’t found your own Joanie yet, here’s to you for moving through this sometimes challenging life without the love and support you’ve always deserved.

Renee Skudra

Renee was raised near Niagara Falls, so she feels most at home when her son Jackson and Bichon Frise Jackson are together. She also enjoys reading a couple of novels and dark chocolate bars. Her favorite advice for aspiring authors was the line in “Throw Momma from the Train” where Billy Crystal advised Danny DeVito that he “a writer, write.” This is exactly what she is trying.

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