I remember the last time I saw my mother alive like it was an hour ago. The luggage guy tagged my bag at the American Airlines airport terminal. She’d just dropped me off for my trip as an exchange student to Mexico. I was sixteen years old. As I was completing the luggage identification tag, Mom drove back around. “Everything okay?” I asked. “Yep,” she answered. “I missed my exit out of here. Love you.”
If I could have that moment back, I’d rush out to the car, hug and kiss her all over again, and tell her how much I appreciated her words of wisdom that seemed like meaningless “mother talk” until I got old enough to understand. My mom enjoyed hugging and kissing as much as I pretended not to as a teenager. I watched our burgundy car disappear around the airport exit bend, and that was the last time I saw Mom alive. I know exactly what she was wearing that day. How she wore her hair. I can still hear her coughing as she drove toward the end of the tunnel. Mom always had a nagging cough— something about bronchial asthma. She had medicines for everything.
Two hours later, I boarded the plane, excited about what awaited me in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where I was to stay for a month through The Gifted Students Institute program. The night before I left, we’d had a meeting at the GSI office, and I vividly remember seeing my mother’s face in the waiting room as the directors of GSI went over what the twenty-one American kids would be going through over the next four weeks. My little brother, Chris, ten years my junior, was doing what six years old do—getting into everything in sight: reading magazines, zooming around with his toy car, jumping off chairs (he was in his Superman stage), and making crash sounds as if he were in a demolition derby. I admonished Mom to “deal with him,” but she just sat there silently.
This was not the mother I’d grown up with. The mother I’d grown up with would have shot Chris “the eye,” and he would have instantly taken a seat and never moved again. But on this night, she was different—calm, almost other-worldly peaceful.
After the meeting, we picked up dinner from Burger King and headed home because I still had to pack a few things. We talked about me being a senior in August when school would start. but mostly we just sat at the dinner table eating our burgers. “You excited about your trip?” she asked me. I was sixteen years old. Sixteen-year-olds are cool, they’re not excited. So, I nodded yes and picked off the onion I’d told them not to put on my cheeseburger anyway. She smiled at me. She watched a few minutes of an episode of M*A*S*H, which was playing on the television in our den, and then she gathered her food, planted a kiss on my forehead, and retired to her room. “See ya in the morning.” The next time I saw her, we were loading the car for Dallas-Fort Worth.
The family I’d been assigned to in Mexico city was a couple with two small children. I had my own room, but that morning as I got ready for school, I noticed that they didn’t have a phone. I said my goodbyes and headed down the hallway to catch the school bus. When I got to school there was already a volleyball game in progress. Volleyball was one of my favorite sports. I quickly put my bags down and headed over to the court. The game was intense and fun. I noticed that the two directors were staring at me. I could-n’t figure out why, so I continued to play. About five minutes later, they called me over to the sidelines. “Your brother called. You need to go home. Your grandmother’s sick.”
“We’ll take you to the airport.”
All the way to the apartment, my heart raced. I wasn’t buying the “grandmother” story at all. And as I packed my bags, I wished I hadn’t studied those Spanish tapes a month before leaving for the trip because what I heard as the Mexican mother and her daughter stood in the doorway of the guest bedroom, nearly incapacitated me. The little girl asked her mother in Spanish why I was leaving. The mother answered—in Spanish—that my mother had died.
I was devastated. The night I got there, I had a dream. I don’t know what the dream was about. I just remember waking up and running to my Mexican parents’ bedroom door requesting to use the phone. “I need to call my mother,” I told them. They answered, “No hay telefono.” I had not noticed this primarily because it had been a long day and I was getting acclimated to my new surroundings. That night I’d cried myself to sleep, but I had no idea why—until I was packing my clothes that next day.
To say that July 7, the day my mother died, was a day that will live in infamy for me is putting it mildly. It was one of my defining moments. On many levels, it was one of the truly spiritual moments in my existence. From having the “warning” that my mother was dying in the precise moment that I was trying to reach her. to thinking back to her serene disposition the night before my trip, to being grateful that I had her for sixteen years. I got a glimpse of who I believe was the real Mom. She and my father were headed toward splitsville, and for the first time in her life, Mom was more than someone’s wife and mother.
She put herself through school, earned her GED, graduated from cosmetology school, and opened her own beauty salon. For the first time in her life, she was doing what made her blissful. No more dependence on my dad. No more wondering what on earth she should be doing with her life. I’d seen her happy, but never that happy. And I’ll never forget how the real Mom walked. How she talked. How she laughed. I’ll have that with me forever.
By DARLA ATLAS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Darla Atlas is a Fort Worth freelance writer.
On your typical house-renovation reality show, families are handed a sparkling new abode, no questions asked. It’s like Christmas, a winning lotto ticket and pure magic rolled into one.
Home Rules is not your typical show.
The HGTV series, which premiered last Monday, requires families to work for the perks they’ll receive. Because these families are frazzled, the work they do is on themselves and their relationships.
The basic deal: “You don’t do your part, we don’t do our part.”
“It’s part renovation, part life transformation,” says host Fran Harris, a Dallas-based life coach and former WNBA star. “I think it’s much more rewarding when people have to exert a little bit of effort for the rewards they get.”
In the first episode, Harris meets Bob and Denise Violette, who are struggling with too many bills, unfinished home projects (they can’t even use the master bedroom because it’s not insulated) and a teenager who lives like a princess. When their refrigerator stops working, they make do without one.
After Harris has worked with the couple on their bad habits, she takes them shopping for a new fridge. What they don’t know is that it’s a test to see if they’ve learned fiscal responsibility. Nope; they pick the priciest model.
Harris then breaks the news: Sorry, no fridge for you.
“They were so mad at me,” Harris says in a phone interview. “It’s like having adult children: ‘Fine, I just won’t eat!’ My job as a coach is to do what my coach did with me: Push me beyond my known limits and my comfort zone.
“It doesn’t make me the most popular person in the room, and I don’t care about that. This journey is not supposed to be a cakewalk.”
With each family, “I tend to hold a mirror to them: ‘Here’s what you’re showing me,’ ” she says. “People don’t like the mirror to be held up.”
Viewers at home may see themselves in that mirror, too. When it’s revealed that Denise “can’t pay the bills because she doesn’t want to face the bills,” she becomes relatable to many. Including her coach.
“I completely identify with that,” Harris says. “I’m hoping that when people see the dad who’s overworked, or the kid who wants everything but doesn’t think about her parents, it will be hard for people not to see themselves.”
In the end, the Violettes learn valuable lessons – “The way we were living wasn’t really how any of us should be living,” Denise says – and their home transformation is dramatic.
“When you think about it, a house being renovated is a perfect metaphor for life being renovated,” Harris says.
After filming eight episodes, is she concerned that some of these families won’t make it in the long run? Harris broadens the question.
“I’m very concerned about our world,” she says. “Everybody wants to get to the other side of their pain, but they don’t necessarily want to go through the journey. To dull the pain they do ‘drugs’ – from saying yes to their kids to ignoring their problems to actual drugs.”
On the show, Harris teaches families that “they do have tools and abilities to get through it, but it’s going to take some work. And unfortunately, people are long on ambition and short on wanting to work.”
Harris has often seen that dynamic in her 15 years as a life coach, a career that she built off the principles she learned in basketball. Her South Oak Cliff High School team earned a 40-0 record and won the state championship. She went on to become captain of her team at the University of Texas, winning the school’s first and only NCAAchampionship title in 1986. Then it was on to the WNBA’s HoustonComets.
She moved on to coaching business leaders at Fortune 100 companies, “teaching those executives to build harmonious, high-performing teams.” She’s now doing the same for family units. The task isn’t easy; Harris points to “our multifaceted world” with its many distractions as one issue.
Plus, aren’t we all just lazier than people used to be?
“Without question,” Harris says. “I’m starting a fitness company in Dallas this summer, but I was telling my sister, ‘I have a little bit of love handles. I wonder how much surgery costs.’ And I’m an athlete! We definitely want the easy way out.
“But you can’t have surgery to have better relationships, and that’s what the show is about,” she says. “If it’s worth it to you, you’ve got to take steps to make it better.”
Darla Atlas is a Fort Worth freelance writer.