My Sister Mother

author/source: Penelope Perri

Photo of My Sister Mother MarthaI have no tools for you in this post—just pure, unadulterated inspiration. 

I want to introduce you to Martha, my sister-mother.  To be in her presence is to know grace. She is the personification of strength, courage, determination, and motherly love.   I want to tell you her story, and the story of how I came to know her.

When I was little and dreaming of what my life would be, I always wanted four children.  This was initially spawned by an obsession with The Bobsey Twins mysteries and their two sets of twins, but number four stayed with me.  And although those four children didn’t come to me the way I’d imagined, my wish did come true.

After my bout with cancer left me infertile, my husband and I decided we would adopt our children. We adopted our two babies from a faraway place, Guatemala.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but we did so not only because there were so many children there who needed families. In my heart of hearts, my ego and insecurity desperately wanted to ensure that my children would be “all mine.”  Naively I thought that physical distance would somehow erase biological bonds. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.   

Photo Courtesy of Elias VidalBy the time our babies were school-aged, we were searching for their birth mother, having come to see that she was an integral part of them, and their bond with her was a precious lifeline.  We began corresponding with her, sharing letters and videos over the years, and though we never were able to meet her, she is absolutely a part of our family.  She became my first sister-mother.

Over the years I have come to realize how much of parenting is in fact about sharing your children with others, and ultimately giving them back to the world – to their own lives. I came to cherish my children’s biological mothers and my sister-mothers.

Later, two other children came into our lives, manifesting that number “four” that had first whispered to me. One was a 12-year-old boy who had emigrated to this country from Africa and lived down the street.  He and our son became best friends instantly and soon he was at our house daily.   He was the youngest child in his family, and while his older siblings and his mother, Martha, were working hard to create a new, sustainable life here, he was still very much a kid. As the youngest child, he was living a hybrid childhood, half rooted in the traditions of his native country and half imbued with all things American.   It seemed to make sense that he needed both his family of origin and an American family.  Soon we were stepping in to help with field trip forms, sports camps, and basketball shoes. Soon he had a bed in my son’s room and joined us on our family vacations.  All the while, Martha welcomed our participation and graciously shared her son with us.   She became another sister-mother to me.

Almost ten years later, our families have developed a deep and lasting bond through this shared child who is now a young man. We’ve spent holidays together; we’ve cried together in difficult times and shared joyous milestones. This Mother’s Day weekend was one such milestone: we were privileged to attend the college graduation of our shared son’s older sister.

Photo Courtesy of Liv BruceThere is something about a graduation, isn’t there? The literal and musical Pomp and Circumstance, the procession of fresh young faces with their mortarboards placed at that jaunty, hopeful angle.  It was incredibly moving to witness all this alongside Martha, who had crossed countries and continents to make this day a possibility for her children.  She’d survived war, persecution, and the loss of her husband.  She and her kids spent years – years! -- in a refugee camp in Nairobi, waiting for the chance to come here.  

Martha will tell you that her faith is what gave her the strength to keep going in the face of all she endured.  She is a deeply religious woman; her faith is unshakeable.  Yet on that graduation weekend that I shared with Martha, I kept thinking that another of her lifelines must be her imagination. What had she imagined when she pictured this day?  The picturesque New England town, the bagpipes’ melody, and her daughter’s mortarboard decorated with an empowering quote. Did she have any reference point for all this?  She may as well have been conjuring the surface of the moon.   

Photo Courtesy of Andrae RicketsImagination allows us to inhabit a world that does not yet exist for us.  If we rely only on the evidence of our current circumstances, we often have very little to pull us forward.  To take a leap of faith, to reach into the darkness, we must engage our imagination, and deploy it in the direction of our dreams, and our desires. When Martha was in that camp in Nairobi, she not only kept her faith alive.  She willed herself to believe things she couldn’t yet fathom. 

What do you need to believe that you can’t yet see clearly?  Sometimes in our busy lives and the daily grind, our imagination gets muted and tamed.   It fades to the background, neglected.  Our power and energy are often wasted on things we can’t control, but our imagination deserves some of that attention, that fuel.  Our imagination is a renewable resource.

I’ll leave you with a parting image, one that both tickled me and moved me to tears.  On graduation day, Martha was decked out in a fabulous igitenge, the traditional dress of her native Congo.  And strapped on her delicate ankles were the cutest, most quintessentially American pair of kitten heel shoes.  I just love that this pillar of strength, this woman who’s been moving, pushing herself forward all her life, now gets to indulge in some gorgeous but impractical footwear.  She has arrived.

Photo Courtesy of Penelope PerriI hope my sister-mother, Martha, has inspired you:  Keep moving, keep dreaming.  Let your imagination be wild. And when you arrive at your destination, strap on your kitten heels, and celebrate.


Penelope Perri, MSW, CEAP is a certified Life and Leadership Coach with a background in counseling and healthcare.  In her coaching practice, she coaches leaders, individuals moving through transitions and busy professionals who want to overcome and prevent burnout.  

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