May 2, 2016 12:21 AM
Cecilia Rose O'Keefe Neustrom, at a wedding reception when she was studying at USL (circa 1968)

When we are children, we love our mothers as a child loves, openly and reflexively. We love oblivious to the complicated paths of their lives before we arrived.

It is only later in life that we begin to understand just how much we love our mothers for who they are in their entirety, and how much they have loved us in that context.

This Mother’s Day, I want to fully honor my mom, Cecilia Rose O’Keefe Neustrom.

For 16 years, the parish of Lafayette has known my dad, Sheriff Michael Neustrom. Many fewer have known my mother. For far longer than his terms in office, she has quietly served as his confidante even as she has mothered me and my five siblings and doted on her grandchildren. She has been my father’s wife, my mom and her own woman.

As one of 13 children raised on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, she had her first inkling of the link between motherhood and responsibility. She helped raise younger siblings. She was a drum majorette in an all-girls marching band, and marched in the inaugural parade for President John F. Kennedy, among other calls to duty.

Eventually she ventured beyond the Coast to attend college at USL. At the time she was told she should limit her ambitions to becoming a secretary, nurse or teacher. (This seems almost incomprehensible now.) Still, with her mix of intellect, Southern charm and disarming wit, she found time to succeed amid both tradition and change; she was a homecoming queen who went on to support herself.

She met my dad on a blind date, and married him as the love of her life. She valued what he valued in criminal justice and rehabilitation. She typed his dissertation in our cramped little house while Dad attended Sam Houston State. Our family grew, first one child, then another, and finally six.

When we returned to Lafayette, she not only continued to be a mom, but she also sought out a new career of her own — becoming one of the first “land m’ams” of the oil and gas industry.

Still, she washed our clothes, found lost sports uniforms, attended games, baked for fundraisers, sewed prom gowns, prayed for us at church and helped found the Lafayette Irish Society.

When Dad was elected in 2000, a new era began. Most of the children had left home. The breadth of her life changed. She was one step removed from the public sphere, a source of counsel to my father and steadily calling him to be his best. At the same time, she began to cultivate her own interests — quilting, painting and teaching others the same.

She nursed my sister Alison, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with compassion, until Alison’s death at age 42 in 2014. By example, she taught Alison and all of us the virtues of spiritual resolve and the meaning of grace.

The gist of Mother’s Day sentiments is often that moms do so much in addition to other chores and obligations. That’s not quite true. The length of a day does not expand just because a mother has more to do.

Moms do more in spite of other demands on their energy and emotions.

So I am humbled by my mother, Ceci.

I am humbled by her small virtues that others often take for granted, such as her intent to make every soul in our family and circle of friends feel welcomed, her capacity to truly listen, her quiet hugs of support and her knowing glances of tolerance and acceptance.

I am humbled by her immense generosity to those in need, her passion, her creativity and her ability to continue loving us all through so many incredible challenges.

I can say this because I now am a woman and mother. I know life and loving in ways I never understood as a child. And I know enough to recognize when to write in homage. Thanks, Momma.

Kim Neustrom is a daughter, a mother, a sister and a dreamer who serves as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Acadiana.

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