I vowed never to be like my mom, and I really meant it.

She was mean. The true definition of the word: unpleasant, sometimes even unkind.

I wouldn't come to terms with why she'd made my life so hard until long after I had children of my own.

She had plenty of reasons to be mean.

She wanted to give me a chance at a better life, and she did it the only way she knew how.

She ruled with an iron fist.

She was an only child born in the 1930s. She grew up during the Great Depression in rural Oklahoma, literally dirt poor. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade, got married and started a family when she'd barely had a chance to grow up herself.

She married a "Buffalo Soldier;" the term for those who were members of all-Black units in the U.S. Army until President Harry Truman desegregated the Army in 1948. They had helped settle much of the American West.

She would pray him through both the Korean War and Vietnam. She would move eight times in the 30-year span of his career, would send her own son off to war, and watched her children grow up and grow out of needing her.

At 21, she had a house full of kids and concerns about putting food on the table and paying the bills. She raised eight babies using cloth diapers and glass bottles.

She never wore a wedding ring. It never occurred to me that they probably couldn't afford one. And by the time they could, it most likely didn't matter anymore. She acted thrilled every Mother's Day, Christmas or birthday when we gave her the latest kitchen gadget, or nothing at all.

She traveled — in the U.S. and abroad — many times with eight children in tow, following my father to new duty stations.

She mourned the deaths of John Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She marveled when men walked on the moon, watched her first color television set in awe and endured the traumas while celebrating the triumphs of the civil rights movement.

She's been called colored, a Negro, Black and African American. And a whole lot worse.

The mother of eight children, wife to a U.S. soldier, she was refused service at restaurants, denied access to public pools and barred from a gas station restroom in Tennessee.

Still, she was a mom who showed up.

She was at every basketball game, awards ceremony and parents' night. She listened to me read. She listened to me count. She laughed at my jokes (she still does). She believed I could be more than I ever would have imagined. And she made me believe it, too.

I didn't appreciate her. Not even when I cried in her arms after a breakup with my high school boyfriend, or when one of my own children broke my heart.

It had never occurred to me I'd broken her heart, too, the way children unthinkingly do.

Her feelings never occurred to me at all.

I cried in her arms in the early years in my marriage. It never occurred to me that she hadn't had any arms to comfort her in the early years of her marriage.

She introduced me to Jesus and taught me to value sibling relationships; relationships she never had.

She taught me marriage is forever.

When I think about all she did for me and multiply it by eight, I don't know how she did it.

When I was 15, I was in high school, not married and not pregnant. At 21, I was in college, not raising five kids. I didn't give birth to my first child until I was almost 30.

I've never worried about putting food on the table or struggled to pay my bills. I've never been denied access to swimming pools or restaurants. I've never suffered the humiliation of drinking out of the "colored" water fountain or sitting in the back of the bus.

It never occurred to me that many things I experienced as a teenager and young adult, she also was experiencing for the first time. A wedding, high school and college graduation ceremonies.

Because of women like her, moms today will never have to endure what she did.

When I look at her now — the corners of her mouth permanently turned down with age — I remember that tired woman who got me up in the mornings, took me shopping for school clothes, taught me the importance of being a lady, and tried to make every Christmas and birthday special.

My selfish perspective has changed through the lens of maturity. Now I see a mother's heart whose compassion was sometimes stifled by fear. I'm proud to say I was raised by a "mean mom."

Because of her, I don't have to be the same kind of mom she was. She sacrificed so I could be any kind of mom I want to be.

Maybe she wanted something different from life. But she took what she got and made it her dream. And she realized it.

She gave me a better life than the one she'd had.

Sheila Qualls, of Medina, is a speaker, coach and blogger on the subject of marriage.