Who is important in your life?

By Jessica Palomo, 17, Ramona Convent (Alhambra)
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Photo by Jennifer Kim, 15, South Pasadena HS

Being raised by a single mom, I feel like I’ve always been treated differently. People pitied me or thought I’d turn out bad. But my mother always made me feel better through her optimism and warm heart.

My parents separated when I was 2. To most people in my family, except my mother, my dad was undeserving of the title of father. When I was little, I liked to decorate my room with pictures and posters. Once, I put up a small picture of my dad and me. I liked it because of the way we were posed and because I liked my outfit. In the photo we’re at Yosemite and there are a bunch of trees behind us. I’m sitting on a short wall and he’s standing beside me. I’m wearing a pink dress and purple tights, with my hair in pigtails. My grandma came into my room one day and saw the picture. She cussed at me in Spanish, pointing to the picture and then pointing back at me. I felt as if I was worshipping the devil. My grandma called it disrespectful to my mother. She came back a few hours later, to make sure I had taken it down. When she saw that I had, she sat on my bed and told me that my dad would never love me. Her words hurt me more than anything had ever hurt me before. And it wasn’t what she said, but she said it in a way that made me seem unworthy of being loved.

But my mom told me otherwise. When I was younger my mother sat down with me beneath the lemon tree on the side of our house one summer evening. Through whispers and held back tears, she explained to me that although their marriage was anything but perfect, it was nothing to be ashamed of. And instead of instilling any sort of hatred toward my dad, my mother said something I admire more than anything else: “I love you. That’s what matters. Don’t listen to your grandma or anyone who tells you there’s something wrong with you. You’re the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me. Don’t forget that. I know you’re upset—I was for a long time too, but we have to forgive so we can have peace in our hearts.”

I’ve been able to form my own image of my father—the problem is, that image is just about the blurriest image you could ever imagine. He’s a dad who lives on the other side of the planet, even if his house is half an hour away. I see him about twice a year. Our meetings consist of my dad naming titles of dense books I’ve never read in hopes that I’ll know something about the plot so we can have something to discuss for the next hour. In his apartment you’ll find a huge pyramid of plastic Tropicana lemonade bottles, and a copy of Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis painting. I know he’s my dad, but I don’t know much about him.

My dad didn’t even remember my birthday

I remember visiting him on my 11th birthday, and sitting on the wooden porch swing outside his house, while my mother spoke to him inside. I overheard her say, “Did you wish her a happy birthday?” “No,” he said. “How am I supposed to know when her birthday is?” My heart sank. No one had ever forgotten my birthday before. I thought maybe I’d get an apology. So when it was time to go, I held on longer than usual when hugging him goodbye, waiting for one. But I never got my apology.

Growing up, I had a clear vision of what my dad was supposed to be like. Having spent a lot of time with my cousins, I saw the way their dads spoke and acted around them. They were gentle, and kissed my cousins on the forehead before they went to sleep. The thing I remember the most was how they taught my cousins how to ride a bike one summer. My cousins weren’t afraid of falling after a while because their dads were right behind them, ready to help. I felt ashamed that at 12 years old, I was older than some of my cousins and didn’t have the first clue about riding a bike. I didn’t know how to pedal, and I didn’t have a dad to teach me.

That same summer, I begged my mom for a bike. It could be any bike—as long as I had one. Then Christmas came, along with my first Schwinn. But when I saw it, I couldn’t bear to look at it. What I really wanted was a dad to teach me how to ride one, and that Christmas, Dad didn’t come. It wasn’t until February that I took it out from the dusty shed I had buried it in. I took a long look at it. Then I got on and slowly, I started pedaling, building up speed as I took it for a ride on the patio around my house. I wobbled. I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t fall. The smile on my face that day was as big as ever. I discovered that even though I didn’t have a dad to encourage me, I had faith in myself.

Still, I’ve also thought about how much my dad’s absence has affected me. After looking up information on the Internet about kids with single moms, hundreds of links popped up. I saw things like, “As children from single-parent families become adults, they are more likely to marry early, have children early, and divorce.” I felt as if people I had never even met had the same idea about me as some of my family members. Maybe I was supposed to end up unhappy and unsuccessful. After all, who was I to argue with public opinion? My mother noticed my gloomy attitude. She assured me that I could prove them wrong. Her confidence in me was what helped me have confidence in myself. But at times, this confidence wasn’t always easy to keep.

Accused of being a flirt

The parents of friends I’ve known since elementary school even had ideas about the kind of person I was. Two years ago I was watching a movie at a friend’s house and her older sister and her sister’s boyfriend were with us. We were on one couch, and I was sitting next to her sister’s boyfriend. We all had fun and when the movie was over, my mom picked me up and I went home. The next day my mom told me about a phone call she had gotten. My friend’s mom said she felt like I was flirting with her daughter’s boyfriend and that because I had no father figure, I’d be throwing myself at guys all the time. I was shocked. These were people we’d known for years. My friendship fell apart. I wanted to confront my friend’s mom, but I couldn’t look at her or her family without wanting to cry, hurt because of what was said about me.

I probably would have let these comments seep into how I felt about myself, but my mom was there to comfort me. That night we were in the middle of dinner when she stopped and looked at me. “Who do you think you are?” she asked. After a few seconds, I answered. “I’m me.” “Keep it, and don’t let it go,” she said. “There are going to be people telling you who they think you are. Prove them wrong.” By encouraging me to keep my head up, she reminded me that I was in control of my life. If I didn’t want to turn out a certain way, I wasn’t going to.

This mindset wasn’t always easy to maintain. Flipping through the channels one evening last spring, I landed on the Dr. Phil show. Seated was Ann Coulter, author of Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America, a book that devoted an entire chapter to single mothers. I sat on my couch watching as this woman connected America’s crime rate to the actions of children belonging to single mothers. The audience clapped as she went on to say that these children, or “future strippers” as she referred to them, were responsible for years of crime in America. I kept watching, unsure if it was some sort of joke. Why were they clapping? I was shocked by the audience members uniting in what seemed to be hatred toward my mom and I.

Coulter’s comments echoed those belonging to people I’ve encountered over the years, whose judgment of me has been based on the fact that I, like so many other teens, have a single mom. I explained my frustration to my mom as soon as she came home from work. She listened patiently and took a deep breath before speaking. “Do you believe her?” “How could I?” I said. She said, “Jessie, you’ll find these people everywhere. Ignorant people who choose to criticize others. Don’t listen to their comments, don’t dwell. Listen to yourself. You know what you’re made of.” 
I want respect, not pity

Last year I was required to write a personal statement for my English class. Mine was about my dad’s absence in my life and the positive attitude that I try to maintain. After sharing our essays, I had people come up to me and give me hugs, expressing how sorry they were. My friend Jane hugged me, whispering, “I’m so sorry.” I try my best not to feel sorry for myself, but it’s difficult to do when people look at you with pity. I’d rather have people treat me kindly because of who I am, not what I’ve been through. I’m so much more than that. I’m an honors student and a peer counselor at my high school and I volunteer at my church to work with children. I go through life knowing that belief in myself is the most valuable thing I could ever have.

This faith in myself has only grown stronger with the help of my mother. She doesn’t just tell me to believe in myself—she shows me what can happen when you do. I can remember doing my homework while she did hers right next to me—I was learning addition while she was studying for her degree in public health. She worked nights as a nurse at one of the busiest hospitals in southern California and still had time to come home and read me my favorite book, The Tortoise and the Hare. Her 14 years in the Army Reserve also showed me how much willpower she has, because of the high rank she worked so hard for. And she’s not all work—she’s wisdom too. My mom understands the statistics about children of single parents that I’ve seen, but she also understands that a person’s dreams and aspirations are more powerful than presumptions made by so-called experts. Telling me that everyone else’s opinions didn’t compare to my determination, her confidence in me has never faded. And as far as I can tell, everything I have accomplished in life has drowned out any assumptions made about me.