I Promise, Mama

I Promise, Mama

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

I Promise, Mama

A promise made is a debt unpaid.

Robert W. Service

“Jean Oliver Dyer,” a voice said, and Jean crossed the stage, her head held high, her gown rippling in the breeze.

Suddenly, Jean’s eyes fluttered open. Groggily, she wiped the sleep away and sighed. No graduation. No diploma. It was just a dream—a dream that won’t come true, Jean thought sadly—and a promise I can’t keep. I’m so sorry, Mama! She cried.

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Jean could read by age four. Whenever she asked for help with her homework, her mom, Amanda, said, “You’re so smart you can do it yourself!”

Jean was smart enough to skip a grade—and to know how hard her mom worked. Amanda, who had left school to help support her family, now washed dishes to make a living. “But someday,” she’d tell Jean, “you’re going to college.”

The night Jean started the tenth grade, she found a new sweater and skirt on her bed. They’re lovely! she thought, But Mama must have spent a month of paychecks on these! Her face burned. Mama shouldn’t work so hard, she thought. I love school—but Mama needs me more. Soon, she dropped out, too. Disappointed tears shone in Amanda’s eyes.

But it’s for the best, Jean reminded herself. She found work at fast-food eateries and laundromats. One day, a young man with a shy smile asked her out. Almost before she knew it, they were married.

Jean became a mom—six times in seven years. Between sewing and washing sticky hands, she worked as a teacher’s aide. But money was tight. I’d earn more if I had my diploma, she thought.

So Jean went to night school. “Mommy has to go to school now,” she’d laugh, kissing six little faces and racing off.

When Jean earned her GED at twenty-eight, her mom was ecstatic. “I knew you could do it!” she cried.

Jean enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University for one class—and earned an A.

“That’s my girl!” Amanda cried.

But as Jean began her second term, it was hard to stay focused. Does Ervin need help with fractions? she’d wonder. Did Dana take her bath?

“It’s too much,” Jean cried. “My children need me.” She was able to find a job as a supervisor at the housing authority, and she encouraged her kids to study hard. “Mama,” she’d boast, “all the children are on the honor roll!”

“When are you going to school?” Amanda would ask. Why is that so important? Jean fumed inside. I’m a hard worker, a good mother—why isn’t that enough? But soon after her kids began heading to college, Jean’s marriage crumbled. One day, she found herself alone, staring at a wall of job commendations. There was one vacant area— a spot for a college degree.

“Mama,” she told Amanda, “I’m going back to school.”

“I’m so happy!” Amanda cried.

But it was hard. Jean needed three jobs to pay her bills and tuition. She often fell asleep over her books. That semester, she stared in shame at a row of Fs.

“It’ll get better,” Amanda encouraged. “I’ll help however I can.”

Amanda’s persistence—nagging, even—perplexed Jean. I was doing all right without a college degree, she’d think. So why . . . ?

One day, she got her answer. Amanda had been offered a post on the church council—and she’d turned it down.

“Why?” Jean cried.

Amanda looked down at her feet. “There’s so much paperwork to do,” she blurted. “And I . . . I can’t read!”

The words felt like a slap to Jean. How could I not have known? she wondered. She thought back to how, as a child, she’d had to read recipes aloud, how Amanda wouldn’t help with her homework. That’s why it matters so much to her for me to achieve! she realized.

“Oh, I’ll teach you to read, Mama!” Jean cried.

But Jean didn’t have that chance. Soon after, Amanda was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

I can’t bear to lose her! Jean wept. She tiptoed into Amanda’s room, where her mom reached out a hand.

“What is it, Mama?” Jean asked.

“Promise one thing,” Amanda murmured. “Promise me you’ll finish college.”

Jean bit her lip. This had been her dream for so long. How can I not? “I promise, Mama,” she whispered.

From then on, Jean threw herself into her studies, rushing to Amanda’s side after class. “I’m here, Mama,” she’d say softly.

“You should be studying!” Amanda would scold.

When Amanda slipped away, Jean felt hollow with grief. There was only one thing to do: keep her promise.

Then one day, Jean awoke with chest pains and needed surgery for a heart problem. And now, as she recovered at home, she worried she’d never make Amanda’s dream come true. I’ve failed you, Mama, she wept. I’ll never graduate!

All of a sudden, she could swear she heard a familiar voice. “Yes,” it urged. “Yes, you will.”

“You’re right, Mama,” she whispered. “You’ve always been right.”

Soon, Jean was back on her feet—and back in school. On her lunch hour at work as an investigator for the police department, she’d read textbooks, then stay up late into the night writing papers.

And on Mother’s Day 1996, as Jean slipped her graduation gown on, she felt a rush of pride. I kept my promise, Mama, she thought. How I wish you could see me now!

As she crossed the Saint Paul’s College stage to accept her bachelor’s degree and her grandchildren cheered, “Way to go, Granny!” Jean looked heavenward. You do see me, Mama, don’t you? She smiled.

Today, Jean, fifty-eight, is one course away from her master’s degree, and she’s establishing a parenting program for low-income moms. “I want to be a source of strength for them, like my mom was for me,” she says.

Each night as she studies, she gazes proudly at her diploma on the wall. But her real inspiration comes from the photo on the table—the one of Amanda smiling. I finally did it, Mama, Jean thinks. For me—and for you.

Jean Oliver Dyer Excerpted from Woman’s World

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