Over the holiday weekend, Oprah said goodbye to her mother Vernita Lee at age 83.
Vernita passed away on Thanksgiving at her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after being retired by her eldest daughter, Oprah Winfrey. Her loss has us acknowledging the air of mystery that surrounds their relationship as mother and daughter.
Vernita Lee (left), the mother of Oprah Winfrey (right), passed away on Thanksgiving/Handout
Oprah has gracefully shared stories from her troublesome upbringing, often recounting the lessons she learned from experiences like becoming pregnant at 14, giving birth to a daughter that would later die from complications, and how she used that experience as a newfound opportunity to start over and pursue her dreams. Once she gained success from The Oprah Show, she made it her business to take advantage of the luxury to retire both of her parents who never had it easy:
"[I wanted] to take care of them and to provide for them and to make sure that they never had to want for anything as they tried to do for me."
Despite Vernita's efforts working as a housekeeper, she found herself unable to provide for her daughter, that was conceived while she was just eighteen years old. Her home was less than whole, as Oprah was the result of a one night stand Vernita had had with her father, Vernon Winfey.
After giving birth to Oprah, she moved to Wilkwaukee, leaving her newborn with her grandmother Hattie Mae Lee in Mississippi where she would spend the first six years of her life. When the mother and daughter reunited in Oprah's adolescent years, Oprah was often acting out, and Vernita felt like the best course of action would be to send her daughter to live with her father. Later on in life, Oprah saw the strategy behind her mother's decision, as she shared during an interview with Barbara Walters in 1998:
"I was 14 and then sent to live with my father. And that ended it. That ended it. He was so strict because he knew what he had to deal with."
Though later on in life Vernita was able to live with ease, her life had many difficult moments, especially as a mother. She had to deal with the death of two of her children in her lifetime, Jeffrey Lee in 1989 and daughter Patricia Lee Lloyd in 2003. Before that, she had to make the difficult decision to give up Patricia for adoption in order for her to receive the love and resources she needed. Vernita shared:
"I made the decision to give her up because I was unable to totally take care of her."
Oprah had an emotional reunion with her sister, Patricia Amanda Faye Lee, on The Oprah Show and shared about their sister that she had never known about but grown to admire:
"She had tried, and tried, and tried again, even wrote an email to our office back in 2007...had gone to her pastor, who contacted my mother's pastor, who then sent a letter to her mother. She tried and tried and tried again to get responses from my mother and other people in the family, and never once thought to go to the press. She never once thought to sell this story ...so when I heard this about you I didn't know whether it was true or not true. Now I know it is true that you are my sister...I had to meet you because I had to meet somebody that had that type of character."
Though Vernita was not widely-known in the public's eye, she made sure to express her admiration for the woman her daughter has become in interviews:
"When she did 'The Color Purple,' I felt so proud of her… I said to myself, 'Oh she's my daughter.'"
Oprah made sure to let her mother know that she knew she did the best with what she had at that point of her life, sharing:
"To my mother, I say, 'You can let this shame go.'"
Relationships with your loved ones are notoriously complex, as we cannot choose our parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and etc. However, there is something very beautiful about seeing a person really empathizing with their loved ones and forgiving them for difficult choices they had to make.
As young adults, we often forget that regardless of a person's role in your life, they simply cannot give you what they do not have themselves. As daughters, sometimes we forget that our mothers are doing the very best they can with what they know and what they have. And that lastly, there is no shame in that.
Rest In Power Queen.