Earlier today, news broke that Vernita Lee, Oprah Winfrey's mother, passed away on Thanksgiving day. By the time the rest of the world found out Monday morning, a private funeral service had already been held for Lee, and a place to make donations in her name was set up. Her passing was handled with the utmost amount of privacy, despite the omnipresent fame of her eldest daughter, shrouding her death in the same mystery that engulfed her life. The relationship between Oprah and her mother is complex, but their story has evolved throughout Oprah’s life in a way that is simultaneously beautiful, reminding us all that it’s never too late to make things right.
It’s hard to imagine that Oprah even has a mom. She's Oprah! As a celebrity and mogul in her field, she feels much like her character in A Wrinkle in Time, a wondrous deity who just… exists. But just like the rest of us, she has an origin story, one that begins with Lee as a teenage mother in Mississippi. Shortly after giving birth to Winfrey, Lee migrated north to Milwaukee, WI where she worked as a maid, leaving Oprah in the care of her maternal grandmother. It was Winfrey’s grandmother who taught her how to read, encouraged her to speak publicly, and built her self-esteem.
When Lee and Winfrey reunited in Milwaukee when Oprah was 6, it was just the beginning of a tumultuous road. Lee had another daughter and found it hard to care for both of her children with her wages as a maid. She sent a young Oprah to live in Nashville, TN with her father Vernon Winfrey. Oprah returned to her mother once again, but this time she was a rebellious teenager, lying and stealing for Lee — who had given birth to three more children, one of whom she gave up for adoption. Oprah ran away from home, gave birth to a baby of her own at the age of 14 (the infant died shortly after he was born), and was sent to live with her father for good while in high school.
Oprah has spoken publicly about her upbringing, and on the subject of Lee, she’s shared that she never wanted to be a mother because she wasn’t “mothered well.” She credits her grandmother for shaping her early developmental needs and her father figure for encouraging her to pursue her education and a career in media. The cultural and lifestyle differences between the two women also likely grew as Oprah's career blossomed
But however fraught their relationship was, the two of them found their way back to each other and reconciled in the best way that they each knew how. In the early ‘90s, Lee was a guest on Oprah’s show and received a makeover from one of her assistants. The former housemaid was dealing with the death of her only son at the time and would later lose another daughter. Meanwhile, Lee’s now-grown daughter helped her retire after The Oprah Winfrey Show became successful.
Let the story of Oprah and her mom be a reminder that what may come of a reconciliation might not look familiar under traditional family dynamics. But when it’s all said and done, finding a way to love someone else despite the bumps in the road is all that matters. Plus, if you’re like Oprah, tradition isn’t your thing anyway. May Ms. Lee rest in peace.