At 24, I wrote my mother’s obituary. It wasn’t my first publication but it was certainly the most memorable. For a long time, her absence was the thing you needed to know first about me, if you were interested in knowing me at all. It drew jagged unreasonable outlines around my life, boundaries I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cross, defining whom I could trust, what I might accomplish, and instilling in me a what-if mantra that drove me to compulsively record memories for my own children.
Mothers are the ground of all being, our primary source of food, comfort, and love. They’re somehow just there, on call to Nurture and Nudge: a given, like oxygen. It’s said that fish discover water last, which may be one reason moms labor unappreciated for so long, like underpaid set designers and lighting directors, working backstage to make our performances masterful. It’s only after we watch the movie premiere and get the Oscar that the brilliance and handiwork that made it all possible becomes clear. At 24, it was just starting to dawn on me that my mom had a history and was an interesting, funny person. I had questions and and still expected–needed–her guidance.
By then I had a master’s degree, a job, and a young marriage under my belt. I have friends who didn’t even get past grade school with their mothers still around, so I should’ve felt lucky. Lucky never occurred to me. Mostly I was Sad, which on most days walked around hand-in-hand with its cousin, Angry. Every time I went to pick up the phone to call her, a familiar sting rose in the back of my throat, quickly followed by a rush of irritation. Friends of mine talked casually about going shopping or grabbing a quick lunch with their moms and a cloud of resentment hovered overhead. Worse, people complained about their mothers being nosy, critical, or pushy, and it took all my strength to bite my tongue.
She died in October, so Christmas that year was a challenge, but I was wholly unprepared for what came six months later–Mother’s Day, the scourge of holidays for those with a membership in my particular club. Every drugstore, commercial, and print ad seemed to twist the dagger. My poor mother-in-law, who through no fault of her own could not replace the mother I’d lost, I’m sure felt my lack of enthusiasm. I had to sit through the Sunday sermon praising the virtues of mothers, which I endured only by repeatedly singing The Star Spangled Banner in my head.
Several years later, my own children came along and sweetened the day a bit, but there will always be a mom-shaped hole in the day. Mother’s Day can be excruciating for those who have struggled with infertility and long to hold the title of “mother” themselves. It’s perhaps worst of all for those who have lost a child and face those who tiptoe around the holiday unsure of what to say. Tip: honor their motherhood, however brief. Doing so honors the memory of their child as well.
When you’re not a raving fan of Mother’s Day, you can weather it with a tight smile and some quiet tears when it’s all over, kind of like the present political campaign. Or, you can focus on the other meaning of mother as a verb: to tend with care and affection. In my mother’s absence, sisters and close friends have stepped in to tend in just this way. Having offspring is not a prerequisite. It’s a reflection of the deepest impulse of human kindness and does not require small handprints in clay or dandelion bouquets.
It’s the time when a friend gave my son a ride home when I was impossibly late, and the time when I surprised my daughter’s friend with her favorite dessert for her birthday. It’s my friend who never fails, even after 20 years, to squeeze my shoulder, even through the phone, on days she knows will be tough. It’s my mother-in-law’s gift of an antique pitcher, the kind my mother used to collect. It’s bringing dinner to someone after surgery, helping decorate someone’s Christmas tree after a car accident, sending a text to a teen on their mom’s birthday, because she’s no longer here to celebrate–and you get it. Small kindnesses, stepping in, stepping up: all the things that mothers do in any given day.
Happy Mother’s Day to the Queens of quietly helping others when they need it. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who are so great at mothering.