The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir

The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir

by Victoria Rowell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061246609
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/2008
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 638,673
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

At age eight, Victoria Rowell won a Ford Foundation grant to study ballet and later went on to train and dance professionally under the auspices of the American Ballet Theatre, Twyla Tharp Workshop, and the Juilliard School before becoming an actress. She is the founder of the Rowell Foster Children Positive Plan, which provides scholarships in the arts and education to foster youth, and serves as national spokesperson for the Annie E. Casey Foundation/Casey Family Services. Rowell is an award-winning actress and veteran of many acclaimed feature films and several television series, including eight seasons on Diagnosis Murder, and has starred for the past thirteen years as Drucilla Winters on CBS's #1 daytime drama The Young and the Restless.

Read an Excerpt

The Women Who Raised Me
A Memoir

Chapter One

Bertha C. Taylor

What comes first, before conscious memory, before recorded images, and before the oral accounts that later helped me understand what happened during my first two and a half years of life, is a melody. It's the sound of a lullaby sung by a woman who loves me infinitely, in a full voice that is untrained but on-key, perhaps with a frill here and there that she would never dare use at choir practice or in church, but allows herself just for me. The melody is accompanied in my primal senses by the sensation of motion, as I am held to her bosom and rocked.

Fittingly, my life begins with a dance—a waltz!

Out of this music and movement, other impressions remain of my first foster mother, Bertha Taylor, who received me from the Holy Innocents Home, the orphanage connected to Mercy Hospital in Portland, Maine. When I was three weeks old, Bertha took me to her home, fifteen miles away in the small town of Gray, Maine, with the absolute conviction that she would raise me to adulthood as her own. I know in my cells that this was her maternal plan, just as I know how generously and tenderly every day she kissed my forehead, the nape of my neck, and all my fingers and toes. I know that with her husband at her side and helping, too, she bathed me and changed my diapers for two and a half years, and that with her two best friends, Laura Sawyer and Retha Dunn, and their husbands, created a foundation of love and community that would live on in my self-esteem even when I couldn't name its origin. I know that Bertha was my mother who bundled me up and took me outside as winterapproached to introduce me to my first falling snow, the same mother who encouraged me to take my first steps.

Here in Gray, Maine, population 2,100 or so, approximately 99.9 percent Caucasian in the early 1960s, in the Taylor home on Greenleaf Street—formerly an old redbrick railroad station that Bertha converted into a ten-room residence—joy was born in my life. This imprinted happiness was a lasting gift that my first foster mother bestowed upon me.

What I also know, however, is that it was in this same place where I first heard a grown woman crying. That sound of anguish after a prolonged but failed effort to adopt me left a confusing shadow over my childhood—a dark mystery rooted not only in the circumstances of my birth, but in the very history of Maine.

Perched in the shape of a large ear, as if listening to the secrets of the vast Atlantic Ocean, situated at the most northeastern corner of the American Northeast, the state of Maine is not only the soil from which I sprang, but it ultimately represents my only legal parent. I was literally a daughter of Maine, influenced to an important degree by commonly held, decent values. Mainers on the whole are hardworking, down-to-earth people, devoted to family and community, austere, practical, faithful. Lives depend on survival of the elements and demand a respect for nature. Seasons mattered. We farmed, trapped, shoveled, tapped trees. Some fished, others cut timber and hunted, raised crops, milked cows, slopped pigs, and cleaned coops. We farmers took care of one another and what we had because life depended on it. We had long ago learned to recognize the consequences of failing to do so. We learned how to make things by hand and how to fix them when they were broken.

Of course, when I was growing up, there were noticeable regional and class differences. Northern or coastal Mainers, like members of the Collins family of Castine or lineages from places like Kennebunkport, Camden, and Booth Bay Harbor, tended to be wealthier, more educated, more connected to our nation's founding families; the smaller rural or industrial towns of the south and interior—like Berwick, Gray, and West Lebanon—tended to be poorer and more working class, with lesser known but still long ago planted family names like Lord, Quimby, James, and Shapleigh of Lebanon, Maine. Ahead of their time, establishing early welfare in the United States, before and after the Civil War, these farmers bought and sold farms to aid the sick, the poor, and children, thus creating almsfarms (charity farms). Aside from other distinctions determined by social status, money, education level, and religious affiliation, differences were strong between the part-timers who summered in state and the year-round Mainers. Nonetheless, between most groups of people, a tradition of civility—if not actual tolerance—prevailed.

So you might conclude that the ills of racial discrimination would never have come to roost in a state known for its political independence and its historically significant antislavery role. In 1820, when Maine was granted statehood as the twenty-third state, it was in fact thanks to the terms of the Missouri Compromise—allowing Maine to separate from ownership by Massachusetts and to join the Union as a "free state" while Missouri was to be admitted as a "slave state," thus maintaining a numerical balance between states that forbade human bondage and those that permitted it. Abolitionist societies soon flourished in Maine, in an atmosphere that empowered Harriet Beecher Stowe, then a resident of Brunswick, to write Uncle Tom's Cabin—the antislavery rallying cry heard in the years leading up to the Civil War. In some regards, Maine led the way over the next century when it came to laws protecting the rights of its African American citizens. But unfortunately there were exceptions to this tradition—as evidenced by one of Maine's most shameful chapters, otherwise known as Malaga Island.

From the time that I was in my twenties and first heard about the tragic history of this obscure island, one among several inhabitable isles dotting Casco Bay near Phippsburg, I was haunted by it. Whether or not what happened on Malaga Island in 1912 has any direct connection to my story, I can't say, but it helps to expose some of the social and legal contradictions that Bertha Taylor had to battle on my behalf.

The Women Who Raised Me
A Memoir
. Copyright © by Victoria Rowell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Viewing     1
Grandmothers, Mothers, Aunts (1959-1968)
Bertha C. Taylor     17
Agatha Wooten Armstead     39
The Wooten Sisters & the Armstead Daughters     80
Mentors, Fosterers, Grande Dames (1968-1983)
Esther Brooks     107
Rosa Turner & Barbara Sterling ... & Linda Webb & Carol Jordan     144
Sylvia Pasik Silverman     177
Valentina Pereyaslavec & Paulina Ruvinska Dichter     195
Dorothy & Agatha     230
Sisters (1983-Present)
Millie Spencer & Irene Kearney     249
The Sisters Who Taught Me     279
Dolores Marsalis & LaTanya Richardson Jackson     306
Vicki Lynn Bevan Sawyer Collins Rowell     317
Gratitudes     325
Resources     327

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Women Who Raised Me 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While some readers may take great pains to dissect Rowell's descriptions of her biological mother--and various foster mothers and mentors--I will avoid the unnecessary recounting of every detail of these remarkable women. Needless to say, the venerable and undaunted Black farm owner Agatha Armstead---Rowell's long term foster mother---receives considerable and much deserved attention in this book. Yet there may be some readers who may have difficulty understanding the author's obvious need to elevate and illuminate her biological schizophrenic White mother, Dorothy Rowell. The irony is that the author¿s real and literary attempt at exposing, explaining, and claiming her biological mother is remarkably African-American only a handful of us Black folks can claim any kind of racial purity due to our slave past--a past shaped as much by sexual exploitation and the occasional violation of social and legal codes proscribing interracial relations, as by the exploitation of labor. Both old and new Black American literature, like Black American life, is filled to the brim with accounts of unknown and unnamed ancestors, many of whom did not arrive from Africa most of whom were not anxious to claim their darker relatives. This memoir is a 20th and 21st century story as old as Black America itself. For persons who are visibly and culturally Black, yet who have a White parent, shaping an identity can be visceral and defiantly individual. Yet our long dead Black ancestors did exactly what Rowell does in this book--they claimed what they knew, and embraced the people they needed to embrace to give themselves a sense of history, belonging, and community. Without a full family history, the author can only tell us what she knows about her biological family tree and like the ancestors of old, it is a fragmented and painful account. Like many an orphaned slave child, the foster child in this book claimed family wherever she found it. Her search for family and a sense of belonging ripples through this book and is set to life through her crisp and conversational prose. The women who raised her are family by their actions and by Rowell's claiming them as such. Readers looking for an autobiography of titillating personal details will not find it here. Rowell delves deep enough into her childhood and young adult experiences. Yet she essentially keeps her focus on the array of women who have mothered and mentored her. That is, of course, the power of this text. All of her mothers/mentors come across as ordinary women called to the extraordinary and often painful task of foster parenting a child that they may be unable to keep. The beauty of the text is the realization that all of these women are women any one of us might meet anywhere. Rowell has long been an advocate and voice for children in foster care. She has tirelessly encouraged ordinary folks to become foster parents and mentors. She adds to that stellar legacy with this book. Her literary accomplishment, however, is that she pulls this off without excessive melodrama or moralizing. All at once you weep, and all at once you celebrate. You empathize, but do so without pity. I highly recommend this work and look forward to the next.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love books about strong women who have overcome difficult situations. This is a wonderful book. Victoria has turned her life inside out for all the world to see and hers is a truly amazing and inspiring story. It is beautifully written and, as a history buff, I enjoyed the background information about Maine. I'm glad she included the heartbreaking story of Malaga Island, which, before reading the book, I'd never known existed. This story should encourage everyone to strive to be the very best they can be, no matter how difficult their past. Victoria is a successful woman who has chosen to use her success and recognition to help others.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most engaging stories I have read in a very long time. The manner in which Victoria presents these very different women, and the role they each played in shaping the person she has become, is phenominal. Having met the author during a conference where she held a book signing, the genuine warmth and 'realness' of her personality is evident in every page and through the life-lessons she shares with her readers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book I could not put in down I could not wait to see what else she had to say I will be reading it again
Guest More than 1 year ago
Her life, she has made it her own. For all the women women in her life, they should all be so pround of such a remarkable woman she is today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This stands out in an outstanding way. Victoria Rowell has given us an excellent piece of literature that will help all of humanity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is heart-warming, inspiring, and amazing. Victoria Rowell has been dealt some hard times in her life but she still amazingly survived!! The women who raised her were truly her angels from God. After reading this book you will believe that dreams really do come true!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I admire Victoria for her resilience. Thebook is not written in "story form." Lots of extra details about so manny ppeople it was hard to keep them straight.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sandra Menzie More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book. I laughed,cried,and was amazed by everything vicky endured. How much she was loved by all. Please read this, you won't be sorry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Savannah2u More than 1 year ago
This should be required reading in classrooms as this young woman represents someone who didn't let her background and circumstances prevent her from attaining some of the highest achievements in life. The storytelling is so skillfully told and the details of her relationships with her mentors and friends, dance training, travel adventures and lessons in growing up makes this a page turner. I have recommended this book to several friends and relatives and they all agree with me that it was difficult putting this one down as we wanted to just keep reading more.
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CathyD More than 1 year ago
Interesting, touching and uplifting life story. Proves that anyone can make a significant impact on the life of another, with determination and love. Amost every woman the author met turned out to be an amazing powerhouse -- almost too good to be true. A book not easy forgotten.
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LoisOnMaui More than 1 year ago
This book is a pager turner. You want to finish it to learn what happened in the life the character/author. You want to meet the author and be her friend.
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