Mama always took me with her to pick up her paycheck at the café on Wednesday afternoons. Sitting on a stool at the counter, sipping a chocolate shake, I was as happy as a three-year-old boy could be. Dorothy, the afternoon waitress, would give my stool a spin, and laugh almost as hard as I did.

Mama’s check didn’t amount to much. Most of her money came from the pockets of customers. Everyday, after the breakfast and lunch shifts were done, Mama would return home with an apron-pocket full of change. Three dollars went to Aunt Tilley for babysitting, and a few coins went into my piggybank.

“Those aren’t for spending, John. Those are old coins, collectables. Someday they’ll put you through college,” she’d declare with her chin uplifted.

Mama was beautiful. Her red hair was tied back in a ponytail. Her green eyes sparkled. Her brown uniform and white apron were clean, crisp, and well-fitting. She seemed like the ultimate success to me. I was proud to be her son.

It was in seventh-grade, my first year in middle school, when I found out what a dismal failure my Mama was. Some street-wise kids set me straight.

“Your Mama works for tips.”

“Your Mama spends all day slapping men’s hands off her butt.”

“Your Mama ain’t got no education”

One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I rushed home with some questions for Mama.

“Why didn’t you finish school so you could get a good job? Are you always gonna work in a café?”

It all traced back to Daddy. She quit school to marry him. He had promised to take care of us. One day, without any explanation, he left.

“I did my best. I do my best,” she said with tears running down her cheeks.

All my loved turned into shame. Shame for being poor. Shame for having no Daddy. Shame for having a waitress for a Mama.

I didn’t go to college after high school. I joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam. Mama wrote every day. Mama sent cookies. Mama asked if I needed anything.

Oh sure, I wrote back. Told her ‘Nam was safer than Dallas on Saturday night. But something was missing from my letters. Not love. You couldn’t help but love Mama. Everyone said that. Respect. That’s what it was. There was just nothing I could respect about her. My middle school friends had seen to that.

One day a letter came from Dorothy, Mama’s friend at the café. Mama was gone. She’d died of breast cancer. She hadn’t told me because she knew I had enough to worry about.

They let me go home for the funeral. After it was over, Dorothy came up and handed me a wad of money. Before she died, Mama had asked her to sell the old coins and give me the money. I wouldn’t need it. VA benefits would pay for my college tuition after my enlistment was up.

I handed the money back to Dorothy. “Buy the nicest headstone you can find. Something with angels on it. Something that says the woman buried in this grave was loved and respected by her family.”