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‘I remember Mama’

Volunteers of America’s tribute luncheon provides a special day to mothers whose children can’t or won’t call

Mother’s Day is no Hallmark card for Debra Henderson, who has endured a lifetime of dysfunction and disappointment.

The Spokane mother hasn’t seen or heard from her daughter in 23 years, since the girl turned 18, hooked up with a guy and left for New Mexico.

Her son lives in Spokane but is “strung out” on drugs and is too much of a “trouble maker” to have around.

She met her granddaughter a couple times but is now out of contact with the youngster who lives in Arkansas. Henderson thinks her daughter probably has kids, hearing rumors of at least two, who would likely be nearly adults.

Henderson’s own mother is dead, but that was never a warm-fuzzy relationship. Henderson laughs as she tells about making her mom a clay ashtray when she was a kid. Her mother threw it in the trash. So Henderson fished it out and used it as a toy.

Yet Henderson always looks forward to Mother’s Day, even though she knows her phone won’t ring and her mailbox will remain empty. Thanks to Volunteers of America, Henderson has spent the past 18 years attending the “I Remember Mama” tribute luncheon for low-income women, mostly seniors, who otherwise would spend the day alone. Henderson will join more than 100 other women who will attend today’s event at the Doubletree Hotel. The women will receive gift bags, door prizes and entertainment in addition to lunch and camaraderie.

“You need to be around people as a support,” Henderson said. “They are friendly and very nice. They treat you like a queen.”

Local VOA President and CEO Marilee Roloff said the idea was borrowed from the VOA in New Orleans after Spokane organizers realized they worked with a lot of women who spent the special holiday alone. Nearly 2,000 women have attended during the years. The event is mostly paid for with donations – people sponsor a mother for $25 – or from in-kind donations of services or gifts for the luncheon.

“It’s the sweetest event ever,” said Roloff, who has made “I Remember Mama” the center of her own family’s Mother’s Day. Her mother, Donna Roloff, has been on the organizing committee since the beginning and her daughter has attended every event until last year.

“I’m surrounded by two generations I adore and it’s something we can do together to help someone else,” Roloff said. “We get more out of it than perhaps the guests do.”

The theme of this year’s event is “My Fair Ladies.” Roloff said she and the other committee members constructed huge hats that they will use as table centerpieces. She’s excited that they got a shipment of new Harlequin Romance books that will go in each gift bag. Spokane Jeweler’s Guild donated jewelry. The Doubletree donates some of the food. The gift bags also will include essentials like toothbrushes and “girlie” things such as lotions.

Service coordinators at VOA housing programs help identify women who might enjoy the event. That’s how Henderson, who lives at Applewood Apartments in the Spokane Valley, initially heard about the luncheon that she looks forward to all year.

Applewood Service Coordinator Tonya Townsend said earlier in the week that the women were talking about what they planned to wear. She said it’s rare that these ladies dress up and go out.

“They are always so elated when they get back,” Townsend said. “It just really boosts their self-esteem. It just helps people feel classy.”

Other local senior centers, retirement homes and organizations have Mother’s Day luncheons and teas during the week. Orchard Crest Retirement and Assisted Living had a high tea complete with finger sandwiches and live piano music and the Hillyard Senior Center had a luncheon Saturday with prizes for the best hat. Yet Roloff said the VOA event is the only one she’s aware of that really focuses on the low-income in the area.

Henderson, 62, is diabetic and has heart problems. She hasn’t worked since 1995 when she was driving home from a job interview for a home health care position and was rear-ended by another car traveling 50 mph.

“That was my downhill,” Henderson said. “But I still think I’m lucky compared to some.”

Henderson loves crafts and teaches classes at the apartment complex. She lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment among a clutter of craft supplies with her elderly cat, Jaydee. The cat is named after her boyfriend – “finally a good one” – who died 14 years ago from cancer. There are no family pictures on the wall. Henderson said she has only one photo of her children when they were about ages 9 and 13. It’s in storage with all their childhood drawings and artwork. She said her ex-husband kept all the other photos.

Henderson doesn’t dwell on the bad. She’s quick to laugh and tell jokes.

She cherishes the good memories of her kids when they were younger, such as the Mother’s Day when they made her scrambled eggs and included all the egg shells.

Henderson has friends and sees the other Applewood residents as family. A caregiver comes to help her on weekdays. Her brother lives a few doors down in the same complex.

She sees the Mother’s Day lunch as group therapy. She loves her kids but says their fate and her future relationship with them is out of her hands.

“I’m a believer in the Lord,” Henderson said. “I leave my daughter and son to the Lord.”

She smiles, then giggles.

“If I didn’t have the Lord on my side I’d probably be out at Eastern” State Hospital, she said.


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