Some people say everything happens for a reason – not that I’ve always concurred, but an experience at a friend’s house just a few weeks ago got me to thinking.

It was a chilly and windy Sunday afternoon, and my friend Mimi and I were up for a movie. No films playing in the theaters spoke to us, so we decided to watch an oldie but goodie from her collection. We were both in the mood for a light romantic comedy, and our decision to view the thought-provoking “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” was nothing short of serendipitous.

One of the two intertwining plots revolves around attractive, successful Siddalee, very believably played by Sandra Bullock, and her reluctance to marry a man she truly loves.  Siddalee has a fear of reproducing the same dysfunctional patterns in her future children that she endured with her own volatile mother, Viviane, played to jaded perfection by Ellen Burstyn.

Through stepping stones provided by a photo album, the viewer gets flashbacks into Vivi’s early years. Life had not gone as she had planned. Dealing with the scars of her dysfunctional childhood, the beautiful and talented Vivi still has big dreams: to become a journalist and also to marry her hometown sweetheart, Jack, once he returns from service in the military.

Then life intervenes. Jack is killed while on active duty. Alone and very lonely, Vivi soon marries a wealthy cotton farmer named Shep on the rebound, not out of real love. Shep knows the score but nevertheless feels, “he’d rather play second-fiddle than not play in the band at all.”

James Garner’s Shep is a sweet and tenderhearted man. Vivi has bright, healthy children and plenty of help on her Louisiana estate. Yet, in spite of all these blessings, she frequently dissolves into a pity party over what might have been, always with a glass of booze in her hand. Mild-mannered Shep is not a strong-enough personality to get Vivi back on track with a few severe truths about growing up and taking responsibility.  He either indulgently puts up with her mood swings or disappears for short periods, his whereabouts unknown.

It is not until the end of the movie that Vivi begins to understand how her self-indulgent behavior has impacted the lives of others as well as her own. 

That story touched me on a very personal level. You see, my own mother, Harriet, lived her early life in parallel to Vivi’s in many ways. Although Mom had a loving, devoted mother, her stepfather lacked the tools to raise children. He imposed arbitrary rules in the house, such as insisting that young Harriet ask her stepdad for permission to get out of bed in the morning. He also moved the family around constantly in search of work, yanking her out of school on a frequent basis, once for an entire year.

In spite of this difficult beginning, Mom later met and fell deeply in love with Charles, a fine and handsome man, as she told me. A jealous acquaintance of Mom’s told Charles a cruel lie, that Mom had called him a jackass. Things were never the same after that and the two parted. Mom was devastated; suicidal thoughts crossed her mind.

A few years later, Mom met Simon. A bachelor in his 40s, Simon was going to remain alone unless he found his soul mate:  a tall, beautiful woman of good character, who shared his interests in yiddishkeit and classical music and who he felt would create a good home for them.

His wish list was fulfilled through my mother. He fell hard and fast.

Mom did not return Simon’s affections measure for measure. However, she was almost 31 (practically a spinster in those days), respected him, had much in common with him and felt he would be a faithful husband. 

After thinking things over, she decided to go forward and marry him. Some might call it settling; she called it making a life. Much good came of that union, including two children.

Mom enjoyed staying home to raise us kids and also do volunteer work in the community.  She told me how she came to love my father as years went by. Their union was broken only by his untimely death, after just l6 years of marriage.

Had Mom continued to dwell on how unfairly life had treated her, if she had failed to recognize the many blessings in her marriage to Dad, my experiences growing up could have been much more like the movie’s Siddalee.   

As Mother’s Day approaches, I feel just a little more appreciative of my own mother, who taught me more about life than any school book ever did.

Barbara Russek welcomes comments at

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