Raised By Women, Chapter 2: Patricia Patterson

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The Patterson family is a tribe of women unlike any I’ve ever met. The bond between the six fierce sisters makes it clear to any outsider that to these women, family always has and always will come first. It’s a loud family full of big feelings, big opinions, and big love, and at the head of it all is Patricia Patterson, a matriarch in the truest sense of the word. I met Dr. Sandra Combs at Roebling Point Books & Coffee on a rainy Sunday, laughing at times, tearing up at others, as she talked about the mother that made her family what it is today.

Interview by Kiersten Feuchter. Photography by Nicole Mayes.

Check out “Chapter 1: Dr. Sandra Combs” to hear more of Dr. Combs’ story, and “Chapter 3: Emily Boyd and Lindsay Combs” to hear from the next generation of Patterson-Combs women.

Tell us about your mom, growing up with five sisters, and how that made you who you are.

My momma was raised one of 13 – three of whom died of childhood disease – so she had seven brothers and two sisters, and she was smack in the middle. She was raised out in Boone County on a farm and she had to quit school in eighth grade because she needed to get a job and work. And then she met my dad, and she had six girls – two sets of twins – and by the time Sharon and I came around, their marriage was pretty much… My dad was an alcoholic. So he left, for all intents and purposes. I have no memory of my dad being at home.

We lived in Columbus at the time, and my mom ended up having a nervous breakdown. We lived with my aunts for a school year and then my mom came and picked us back up, and she had family here, so that’s how we ended up in Fort Mitchell. She got connected to this small little Catholic prayer group that found her work; they went before the judge and said, “She can get her kids back. She’s got support.” When she had to prove to the judge that she could take us, they filled the house with furniture and clothes and said, “She’s ready! Get these kids back.” ’Cause she had nothing. We had nothing. My dad sold the house in Columbus with all of our things in it except for whatever we took with us. I was in first grade at the time.


Every time I think about it, I just think, “How?” She just made it stretch. Never bounced a check. Ever. I had what I needed. I got to cheer and I got to go to sleepovers and I got to go to homecoming and prom. Every time I think back, I think, “Where did she find that $100 for a dress?” Like, I have no idea. She just made it happen.


She was the only single parent that I knew of when I was growing up, and it was the ’70s. But we had this amazing community of people… She just had humanity helping her, and never complained, and worked until she retired at 65. She worked one or two jobs, sometimes three. My older sisters worked to put food on the table. I mean, their teenage years were not like everybody else’s. That’s all I ever saw: women just doing stuff. Just getting stuff done. She was up at 5. She was in bed at 10. We didn’t have much; the house was like, falling apart around us, but it was always clean. We scrubbed it every Saturday. We still laugh about it; I’ll never forget: She’s like, “Sandra, that is not scrubbing the floor.”

Every time I think about it, I just think, “How?” She just made it stretch. Never bounced a check. Ever. I had what I needed. I got to cheer and I got to go to sleepovers and I got to go to homecoming and prom. Every time I think back, I think, “Where did she find that $100 for a dress?” Like, I have no idea. She just made it happen.

 Provided by the Patterson-Combs family.

Provided by the Patterson-Combs family.

And then, my crazy sisters. I mean, my god, they’re just the best. Kate and Colleen, they started working at 14. And they weren’t working for spending money to go out with their friends. They were working to buy shoes for their little sisters. And their friends were amazing. I remember we weren’t gonna have a Christmas one year, and this little high school sorority collected money and filled our tiny little living room with a tree and presents and left. I mean, who does that? That’s the kind of people that I had in my whole life: people that just… “We have. You need? Here you go.”

On the way over here, when I got in the car, it was really weird. This old Carly Simon song from 1987, “Coming Around Again,” came on, and I was like, “Holy cow. I have not heard this song in so long.” It’s from a Nora Ephron movie called “Heartburn,” and it was the weirdest thing, ’cause I got in the car and I was like, “Oh, this takes me back.” Like my mom had her situation. She had six kids and Dad was out the door, and this movie was very similar. I remember seeing it and I was with friends and I was like heaving – heaving – because I suddenly realized emotionally the feeling of loving someone and having that go away. The lyrics to the song are, “But I’m so in love with you,” and it says, “I know nothing stays the same and it’s coming around again and I still believe in love,” and all of the sudden I had this weird cathartic realization that my mom was a human, and my mom had given up so much. She never dated. ’Cause who can working three jobs with six kids? And then when we were older and we would say things, she was like, “Why would I want to train another man? Good god, I trained your dad and it failed.” I mean, she was hilarious.


I had this weird cathartic realization that my mom was a human, and my mom had given up so much.


After I got my divorce, I remember just being like, “My god, she was alone alone.” Like, nobody ever held her hand when we were off the rail doing stupid shit. You know? Nobody went to teacher conferences with her. Nobody held her when she cried herself to sleep. She quite literally – from when she was 30 till now, and she’s 81 – has not been held.

I don’t know how she did it. Paid the bills, and loved us and made us feel valued and told us you can’t have all the charismas. Was very, very honest with us. I should’ve known she had something; she has Alzheimer’s, and she never said an unkind word, like even when we had nothing, we always had an extra kid in the house. Kid got kicked out, they would move in with us, so sometimes we had seven or eight kids in the house – what’s one more? My mom always saw promise and hope in the underdog, always.

 Provided by the Patterson-Combs family.

Provided by the Patterson-Combs family.

And so it was funny, ’cause then all of the sudden, she was like, “Why are you wearing your hair straight? You look like a pencil.” Wait. Did my mom just tear me down? My mom’s never, ever said anything negative about me in my life, and she just told me I look like a pencil. So I was like, in hindsight, I should’ve known she had dementia, ’cause she was unkind. She’s never unkind.

Can you talk about how your family is coming around to support her now?

It’s really hard. It ebbs and flows. So, Mom was diagnosed with “dementia of the Alzheimer’s type” in 2007. I was in my graduate program, and she had this strange episode where she woke up and didn’t know where the ice storm had come from and didn’t know who Colleen was. And so we started on the journey. We ended up finding a psychiatrist who worked with the geriatric population, and that was probably the hardest day of my life: I had to hold her hand and walk her into a psych ward, which was my mom’s biggest fear after her breakdown. But the only way to deal with those major psychotropic meds is in-patient care, so we got through it.


You know, I say all the time, “God why can’t you just take her? Like, why? What purpose is this possibly serving?” And then you feel guilty for saying that because I don’t wanna lose my mom, and I can’t imagine the day when I can’t pick up the phone to call her, but then I think, this isn’t really her.


I didn’t tell her I was getting divorced till two years after I moved out. Because it was too much, and it’s weird, you know; their personality changes because that filter is gone. So in some ways, it’s been fabulous, because she doesn’t have any anxiety and she just says whatever, and she’s super sarcastic, which I never knew about my mom. She’s really, really witty and funny, but she always had it pulled together, because she had to. But then sometimes I think maybe that’s part of the reason for the dementia, because between the anxiety and the depression and then having to have control for other people… It’s really interesting because two other women that were part of this really amazing group of people that helped take care of her both have dementia, and she talks all the time about how it’s really sad that “they caught the Alzheimer’s,” and she’s like, “and I don’t have it.” And I’m like, “You’re right. I have no words to say right now.”

We’re getting to another stage, but I will say, it’s the hardest thing, because you feel so much guilt. You know, I say all the time, “God why can’t you just take her? Like, why? What purpose is this possibly serving?” And then you feel guilty for saying that because I don’t wanna lose my mom, and I can’t imagine the day when I can’t pick up the phone to call her, but then I think, this isn’t really her.

 Provided by the Patterson-Combs family.

Provided by the Patterson-Combs family.


But it’s really cute, because my sister Sharon is a single mom, and on birthdays, Christmas, and Mother’s Day, my mom will not stop calling me until I tell her what I got for [Sharon’s son] Elijah to give to his mom. It’s really important for her. And that makes me realize that was important for her, and she didn’t have that. Nobody took us shopping for her. As an adult, I think back and I think, “How many times did she have to say, ‘Oh, I got this cute little ashtray that my kid made.’” And so now even in this weird state of dementia, the core of who she is is still in there, which is an invaluable lesson to me for my students in that there’s a core of who someone is. It’s in there. Even if you can’t reach it with communication, find a way. Find a way to give them words. Find a way to give them a voice.