Oprah Winfrey's relationship with her mother, Vernita Lee, was complicated from the start

Suzy Byrne
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Oprah Winfrey with her mother, Vernita Lee. (Photo: <em>Oprah</em> magazine via Instagram)
Oprah Winfrey with her mother, Vernita Lee. (Photo: Oprah magazine via Instagram)

Oprah Winfrey spent Thanksgiving surrounded by her honorary daughters — girls from her leadership academy, who she hosted at her Montecito, Calif., home. Sadly, across the country the same day, her own mother, Vernita Lee, died. She was 83.

A statement from the family confirmed that Lee had died at her home in Milwaukee on Thursday, and it said that a private funeral had already been held.

Oprah thanked fans for their condolences and said her mom “lived a good life.”

The relationship between the women was complicated from the start. Lee became pregnant during a brief relationship and gave birth as a single teen mom. For the first six years of her life, Oprah was raised by her maternal grandmother. The future TV star then joined her mom, a maid, in Milwaukee, which wasn’t something a young Oprah was keen to do. She told HuffPost in 2015, “I walked into that space feeling completely alone and abandoned” because, she said, her mother was like a stranger to her.

And life there was turbulent. Lee went on to have four children (secretly giving up one for adoption at birth) and had trouble managing everything. A young Oprah slept on the porch of the house her mom resided in and was sexually abused by relatives and family friends.

Oprah with her mother, Vernita Lee, center, and her half-sister, Patricia Lee:

For a two-year period, Oprah was sent to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Tennessee, but then returned to her mom’s care. Things weren’t better: She ran away from home. Her mom threatened to put her in a detention center. She was secretly pregnant at 14 when she was sent back to Nashville to live with her father and stepmother, and she gave birth two weeks later. The baby, which was premature, died, and Oprah and her father saw that as a chance for a fresh start in life. She was soon on the honor roll and then headed to college.

“I started acting out my need for attention, my need to be loved,” Oprah told the Washington Post about her childhood with her mom. “My mother didn’t have the time. She worked every day as a maid. … I was smart and my mother, because she didn’t have the time for me, I think, tried to stifle it.” When her father took her in, she said, “it changed the course of my life. He saved me. He simply knew what he wanted and expected. He would take nothing less.”

Oprah’s mother wasn’t part of her life again — until she became famous. “The period between the time I had a child until I became a TV star, I didn’t see or hear from my mother,” Winfrey told Ebony in 1993. “That was seven years. So when she shows up, I’m like: ‘What am I supposed to feel? What’s a daughter supposed to feel like?'” She decided, “What you owe your parents is honor and respect because that’s what the Bible tells me. And so I have provided a great economic life for both my parents.”

As the queen of daytime, Oprah saw her life dissected by the tabloids, but she did her best to make things seem friendly between herself and her mother. Lee appeared on her show, on one occasion getting a makeover with a lot of input from Oprah.

Lee was interviewed through the years — and it seemed as if their complicated history was rewritten along the way. In 2007, her mom talked about how parents in that day didn’t spend enough time with their children. “See, I spent a lot of time with Oprah,” Lee said.

In the aughts, Oprah and her mother did a joint interview in which Oprah talked about how her mom wasn’t dealt the best hand in life. “When I was in Milwaukee, my mom was raising me as well as a half-sister, who is now dead, and half-brother, who is now dead, as a single woman in Milwaukee — basically, no education, unskilled, in the ’60s. Very, very hard. The sacrifice that that requires, day in and day out, to give up yourself is a lot.”

But they have had setbacks since. In 2010, Oprah found out she had a half-sister, Patricia, whom Lee gave up for adoption. Lee at first didn’t own up to having the child, and for three years Patricia tried to connect with both Oprah and Vernita. The three opened up about being connected on Oprah’s show in 2011. During that episode, she said she made peace with her mom’s decision. “To my mother, I say, ‘You can let this shame go,'” she said.

In a 2011 book about Oprah by Kitty Kelley, an insider said Oprah had a strained relationship with Lee — Oprah had always felt closer to her late stepmother, Zelma, her dad’s former wife. “[Oprah] does not like her mother, she does not give her phone number to her mother, but she has taken good, good care of her,” the author said.

During a 2013 OWN master class, Oprah said she’s had to learn to meet people — including her own mother — where they are and love them at the level they can receive it.

Oprah looked for her own mother figure elsewhere, later considering famed poet Maya Angelou a mother, mentor and sister. And having decided not to have any more children herself, she has acted as a mother figure to the girls at her leadership academy in South Africa.

“It is more rewarding than I would ever have imagined,” she told Good Housekeeping UK last year of her work with the boarding school. “I was doing this to help them, but it has brought a light to my life that I can’t explain. When people were pressuring me to get married and have children, I knew I was not going to be a person that ever regretted not having them because I feel like I am a mother to the world’s children. Love knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if a child came from your womb or if you found that person at age 2, 10 or 20. If the love is real, the caring is pure and it comes from a good space, it works.”

Oprah, who has been in a long-term relationship with partner Stedman Graham, said something similar a few years earlier in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “If I had kids, my kids would hate me,” she mused. “They would have ended up on the equivalent of the Oprah show talking about me because something [in my life] would have had to suffer, and it would’ve probably been them.”

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