Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'You Make Your Own Family': Losing A Mother, Gaining 2 More

Corinthia Isom (right) was just a child when her mother died. At StoryCorps in 2015, Kathleen Payne (left) told Isom why her mom trusted her to take care of her daughter.
Carolina Escobar
Corinthia Isom (right) was just a child when her mother died. At StoryCorps in 2015, Kathleen Payne (left) told Isom why her mom trusted her to take care of her daughter.

When Corinthia Isom was a child, her mother sat her down on the steps of their home to tell her she had a deadly illness.

"I have HIV, and things are gonna change within our lives," Isom says, recounting the words of her mother, DeSeane Isom.

DeSeane was a single mother, so before her death, she asked two of her closest friends if they would care for Corinthia after she was gone.

The two friends, Kathleen Payne and her partner, April, had met DeSeane through an LGBTQ gospel choir in New York City.

"Every weekend, April and I would hang out with you and your mom," Payne told Isom in an interview with StoryCorps. "I remember that she said, 'Don't tell her that I'm going to die.' "

But keeping that promise, Payne says, made it difficult to get to know Isom better.

"When we got the news that your mom had passed on, I was really scared," she says. "For one thing, it was difficult for a lesbian couple to adopt."

The couple would eventually win guardianship of Isom. Still, it was a big transition as Isom grappled with adjusting to having two new mother figures in her life. She and her mother had grown very close in the years before her death, and as Payne remembers, Isom would ask her questions like, "Do I have to call you Mommy?"

"Well, no," Payne recalls answering.

"Then, later on, you said, 'Why do you guys talk like you're white?' " she told Isom.

Laughing, Payne says she explained to Isom that "this is the way some black people talk."

Isom says that at first, she was unsure being placed under the couple's care was the right fit.

"You guys are very educated and, for me, it was like, they're going to want me to study all the time," Isom says. "But I enjoyed you guys, and I was looking forward to you guys being my parents."

Payne told Isom that her mom trusted that she and April would take good care of her daughter.

"She knew we had the support of a lot of people who knew her and would be there for us," Payne says, "which is the kind of thing that you also develop when you're queer and your family may or may not accept you ... you make your own family."

It has been more than 20 years since Isom's mother died. She says her mom never talked to her about why she hoped Payne and her partner would take her in. "But she made a good choice," she says. "A very good choice."

Produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Jud Esty-Kendall