Happy Birthday Mama: How a Mother’s Love got Me to the South Pacific

Some background: I am the oldest of three girls. We were raised in a single mother household, though we all had relationships with our dads. My mother was neither lucky in life or in love. For most of my childhood, my mother battled physical illness, mental illness, addiction, poverty, and heartbreak, often all at the same time. She did all she could with what little she had.

 As a young hard-headed girl trying to make it out of small town America, I often butted heads with my mama. There is so much a child does not understand about the struggles of addiction or mental illness. There were so many grays I did not see clearly with my immature eyes. In 2008, while on Spring Break, I received a call that my mom, Nancy Rumfelt, died of an overdose of her prescription drugs. Oct 2, 2017 would have been her 57th birthday. 

 I would like to take this time to share a surreal moment I experienced when moving into my house here in Vanuatu and how the words of a song that came on made me reflect on how the love of my mother got me here. As with many stories of addiction, the good person that was taken over by this debilitating disease gets overlooked and their struggle and shortcomings get magnified. I would like to honor the person she truly was with this reflection and take this chance to say to anyone reading this, that is currently battling addiction or mental illness: 

We see you. You are important. You are NOT your addiction (mental illness). You ARE strong enough. You CAN overcome this. 

As I sit on the floor of a house I’ve watched (and shared) a million times on YouTube, I am taken back by the reality that it is now MY house. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I live in an island paradise in the South Pacific. This IS my life. It’s real. It’s not a cubical daydream from a place in life I no longer want to be. I am here. Living my dream. As I dip my paintbrush, a familiar song comes on, but the words touch my heart in a way they never have. The song is The Chance by Julie Roberts. Click here to listen. 


Wish I could roll out of town like a runaway train

I’ll do as I dare, let them call me insane 

I’ll never sit on the sidelines of life, I’ll dance every dance. 

If I just had the chance. 

I sit here and think about all the times mama believed in my dreams. She would always say “my baby is going places”. She encouraged me when I didn’t feel good enough. Growing up she would hold my hand and sing the Miss America song as I’d walk over curbs or ledges. When she would brush my hair she would make me recite “I am pretty, I love myself”. When kids were mean, she would either march over to their house and put the fear of God into them or kill them with the kindness they had forgotten to show me… I remember going around the grocery store and people staring at the tattoos my mom had up her whole leg, and if she caught them, she’d make a joke about how they could take a better look…that her tattoos  didn’t bite… to be so self conscious, she didn’t really seem to think twice about acting silly or calling people out when she wanted. She was who she was with no apologizes for it. 

Verse 1 

I found a book that my mama kept

Filled with secrets she hid

And in a dusty old attic, one morning I read

About a woman I never met 

Who had dreams just like mine

With every page that I turned, the words came alive

 I sit and think about the letters I found the day we cleaned the house after her death. I found two letters in boxes I had never read before. She called me the “strong one”. She told me to watch after my sisters if anything was to happen to her. I carried these words with me for many years through strife and family turmoil. When preparing my belongings for Peace Corps I came across these letters again. I read one out loud to my boyfriend at the time to explain why I always stress about the welfare of my sisters like I do…what I didn’t remember being in the letter was the line “I heard through the grapevine you are joining Peace Corps after you graduate”. I didn’t even realize I was discussing Peace Corps out loud that many years ago. Almost 10 years later, here I sit, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the beautiful country of Vanuatu. Even now those words of encouragement and support are sweet assurance to my soul.

Verse 2 

A tear fell on that faded page 

‘Cause this was somebody else

Not the mama I knew who never thought of herself …..

As I smile because of the words of my mama echoing in my head; I can’t help but be saddened by the woman I never got to meet. At her funeral, they spoke of this beautiful, daring, wild, take on the world woman. I never knew she left home and toughed it out in Detroit to be a union carpenter in a time where women didn’t do that sorta thing. She did. I remember a story my dad tells me about watching her work with some roofing (or some similar project) and it being too big for her but how she pushed through and showed it who was boss. 

In small ways I could still see these traits but mostly I knew of her humor and desire to help others but this was a woman I never really got to meet.

As I continue to paint my wall here in the South Pacific, I look into my bedroom. I have my own bed and even a guest room. Even in a developing country, I have been blessed with more than I need. As far back as I can remember, my mom always slept on a couch. The house we spent our childhood in only had 2 bedrooms. What snotty kids we were. Mama had one dresser of belongings and the rest of the space was ours. She was giving us everything and we didn’t even know it. 

Verse 3

The chance that she never had 

Is now the gift that is mine

And out here on this road, I’m making up for lost time

Yeah, I am my mother’s child 

And tonight in this car, I’ve got her words in my suitcase and dreams in my heart 

This part of the song always gets me pumped! In my head, I am sitting here cheering on this verse with “yeah!…yeah!.. yeah!”  That is right! 

I am my mother’s child.

I am no longer sitting at a job I hate. I did dare to dance the dance, to take the chance, and now here I sit in the house I once watched from a computer screen, putting my own mark on its walls. 

I see that mama who packed it up and ventured out on her own. I see the sassy hard-head who didn’t care if the world thought she was crazy. The goofy, infectious love, I hope to have with these students, running through my veins. 

Despite the brokenness of our home, it was a refuge for many. Young girls would come seek advice they were too scared to ask their own parents. Friends would come just to trade stories with her. Anyone who was tired or without a place to go was made welcome for as long as they needed. 

Seeing this giving and selfless side of my mama molded me into who I wish to be. No matter your level of resource, love and acceptance can be just what is needed. I think about my choice to be in a male dominated field for 6 years and how if my mama wouldn’t have been constantly showing us girls that “we don’t need a man around here” how that might have been completely different. Without this teaching, I wouldn’t have been confident in many tasks the world says are for boys only. I might not have chased my dreams because I thought, as a woman, I should be chasing a husband, or even now, as I sit here as a single volunteer in a culture where woman are still very much second rate; I can hold my head high and say “I got this”. My mama prepared me for it.

This was my mother,  beautiful, giving, funny and strong. Her spirit and heart is what got me here to the South Pacific and I am forever grateful.

For all the people out there loving others with addiction or mental illness. Stay strong, they are not their disease and everyone needs to know they are loved and supported. 

For all those suffering from addiction or mental illness, please find help. You are hurting more than just yourself. You CAN do this. This disease is not who YOU are. It will be hard but it will be worth it.

If you would like prayer for your current struggle in addiction or mental illness, please go to the contact page and send me a message.

 You are not alone.


2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Mama: How a Mother’s Love got Me to the South Pacific

  1. Hi Vanna,
    My name is Lisa Mace Robinson. I knew your sweet mother very well. My brother Sammy often told me she was the love of his life. As the story goes Sammy joined the Army and their paths in life took very different turns. Sammy also battled addiction and lost that battle July 2, 2009. I know your mom would be so proud of you!


    1. Hi Lisa, I remember meeting you when I was young. I know of Sammy and the love they shared. I feel like I also met him when I was young. I am sorry for them both to be taken by such a disease and for the love they never got to share.


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