Mother’s day is looming. I’m not a fan. Never really have been and it doesn’t have much to do with my eccentric and exciting upbringing as much as those who know me (and what I’ve written about it) would think.
It’s because it is false. It just rings false to me. The expectations… OMAIGAAAD, the expectations. Poor little kids, gathering all their pennies from their coin banks, asking dad or older sibs to take them to the CVS or the grocer to buy a box of chocolates, a necklace, or make a card or buy a card.
Due to some childhood stuff (my mom had her internal conflicts), I know that some of my dislike stems from not feeling as though I could please her, so yes, there’s that. But the other part is that it’s gone from a random assortment of reasons to honor moms (which in my mind sounds as though Mother’s Day has an identity crisis — shocker — going on) to an all-out blitz of over commercialized nonsense basically saying that if you don’t buy your mother a castle in St. Moritz, you’re an asshole.
Apparently the day exists because the daughter (Anna) of a Civil War peace and public health activist and care giver to wounded soldiers wanted to honor her mom, a woman named Ann Jarvis. The first celebration was in 1905, even though it wasn’t really established as we know it now (with back-to-back Sales and Storewide Blow Outs!) until 1908. Woodrow Wilson signed its proclamation, naming the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, in 1914. So last year was the 100th anniversary of the presidential proclamation… does that mean all the previous ones were moot?
Great. Now we’re all stuck wondering if we’re a) doing enough to be honored; and b) wondering if our degree or honor is high enough… I mean c’mon, how can I compete with a Civil War peace and health activist? They didn’t even have penicillin then. I’d have to move out to the woods and hope a band of wounded forlorn hunters with rabid nationalistic bents travels across my compound and that all cellular coverage is dead.
How would you have liked to have lived during the first Mother’s Day? Can you imagine… back in 1908…
Sissy Calhoun, whispering behind her fan to Minerva Simmons: Did you hear about Anna? She’s honoring her mother… AGAIN… it’s been three years since she died, can’t she just let it go? My mother’s all over me about not honoring her… ‘What? Is it not enough that I simply cooked and cleaned after you for all these years?! I have to go and be an activist TOO?!’ she hisses at me. I can’t take it. My needlepoint is never detailed just so. My churned butter is always runny. I can’t seem to do enough.
Minerva, picking up a napkin she let drop on the floor: I know, right?
Here’s the deal: be nice to your mom as much as you can. If my mom were still here, I’d struggle with the day, I know I would. I struggled when she was alive. Now I struggle that she’s gone. There were some years that all I could do was just send her a card, the burden to perform for her and fill her voids was immense, as was the feverish desire of hers for me to just ‘let it all go…’ whatever I was nursing emotionally, at the time.
She used to call me, often, and just sit there on the line, not saying anything. It was maddening. She would listen for sounds in my background, of the boys chattering, the TV shows or music or of our bustling household with a dog and friends of the boys running in and out. She would just hang there…
I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t “hold” that space for her.
After about 10 minutes of this … experience … I could take no more. “Mom, this is looney. Don’t you want to talk to them? Or me?”
“No. I just like hearing you all going about your day. I imagine how things are. Plates on the counter or a shoe in the hall. A backpack spilled on the floor. My own mother used to do this, just call me and hang on the phone and not say anything. I used to be like you are, thinking she was a little nuts, and she’d say what I end up saying now, ‘I just want to listen. To hear you all…'”
Sigh. (I know I’m going to do the same… my kids are growing up too fast. And I constantly MARVEL at their talents and how they’ve grown and matured. The poor dears… they’re really in for it with me when they leave. Must. Fight. Urge… to call and Listen. On. Phone…)
My mother would often sit in a chair and not say a word, but just observe us. She’d watch us and now I get it, to a certain extent, because she was an artist. If she’d just said something at the time, I wouldn’t have thought she was such a weirdo. If she’d just said something along the lines of, “I’m remembering this so I can draw it later…” (and she’d create a killer rendition of it, in her style), then I know I’d get it. I know I’d be less hostile and secretive.
She used to audio-record us. Major holidays especially. She had a tape recorder with her positioned under a linen napkin (she disliked paper napkins) and it used to unhinge us. She didn’t care. There was always something about Mom which insisted upon reliving the moment, a fear (almost manic and mortal) of moving into a future “space.”
I remember several instances of not really knowing about the recording going on, even though it would’ve happened a previous dinner and we’d discovered it then. It was like my “naiveté and total trust” vat was never ending. But she’d be caught when the tape inevitably ran out and that >CLUCK!< of the machine gave her away… She used 90-minute tapes too, so we’d sit at that table for 45 minutes, easy, as we got older. The tape had to be ejected and the machine had to be reset to begin recording on the other side… it was like an invasion of privacy. I bet when tape recorders were reengineered to have “auto-reverse” it was like Christmas for her. She never knew about MP3 recorders.
On all of those occasions, I remember feeling deeply violated by her recordings and then equally shamed by her for feeling that way. She would dismiss it, telling me I over-reacted. Telling us all that we were wrong to wish she’d not done that. That our protests of her recording us cast a pall on the evenings and we never felt “safe” anymore. That she was recording these moments for history and we’d be sorry one day when there were none. I don’t know if those moments of anger were ever recorded. Mom had a keen talent for revisionist history. I also want to say that she never participated in the regular table banter either, just sat at the table as though she was watching a ping-pong tournament. Once those moments were revealed and felt as though they were repeating, they created a rut in me. I never felt “safe” again having dinner there.
There was no point in protesting. She did it for years. Never really stopped. I’m not sure if she ever listened to the tapes or just kept an archive (which is a stretch, as she was not terribly organized). I have no interest in hearing those tapes. I resent them. She cheated — if she wasn’t present enough to enjoy the moment as it happened, she didn’t get to cheat by recording it and playing it again out of context. Maybe she did it when she would make her “listening” calls.
Knowing what I know now about her inner conflicts, I am remembering that many times she was medicated during those dinners.
This is hard. I really didn’t plan on writing about this. It just sort of happened.
I remember my older brother sending cards every Mother’s Day with a giant “MOM” written across the front of the envelope and our street address immediately below in smaller scrawl. It was always fun for me to see those envelopes in the mailbox. I remember thinking how fun that would be for me to do something similar after I moved away, sending her a card like that and waiting for it to be received.
She never liked to open the envelopes. She barely ever used gifts I gave her. I remember one Mother’s Day when I gave her an avocado and some fancy designer salsa so she could enjoy guacamole — I gave her food so she’d have to eat it or let it perish. I remember being at the house one day, years later, and seeing the salsa jar, dusty, still sealed. I have no idea about the avocado. She loved them, so I’m hopeful she ate it. I asked her about it, why the jar was still sealed, and she said it was not the same jar… that she ate the first one… maybe. She got mad at me for being mad and wondering. Sometimes there was no way to “win” a conversation with her.
I’m trying to remember some fun moments with Mom, because I know they happened. It’s the least I owe her, to remember her on Mother’s Day “week” in a soft rose light.
One of my fondest memories of Mom was when my father would travel for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions for his job. She and I would take his blank check (big mistake, Dad) and go to the grocery store and we’d practically empty the place. Mom’s favorite cheese was Saga bleu on those little rice crackers. She loved Coca-Cola (I never liked it), and we’d take two carts through the store. I liked Oreos and mint chocolate chip ice cream. She liked freeze dried coffee. I liked tea. I liked fruit. She liked chocolates. I liked Cap’n Crunch. She liked granola. I loved fresh roast beef. She loved to make pasta sauces. Some of her best were just the simplest: olive oil, garlic, black olives and tomatoes cooked to an oily reduction which clung to the pasta, the combination of starch and oil created a heavenly experience.
The shopping bills then… they were not INSANE, but they were a lot for just three people (me, Mom and my younger brother). But we didn’t want to shop again later in the week and Dad left us only one check. It was twice a summer every four years. There was no way around it for my father. We were going to shop. It felt as though bringing in those grocery bags, “double bag with paper, please!” (she would always ask) was a daylong sojourn.
I drove to the store in our little 1981 Honda Civic 1500 DX hatchback. It was a manual 5-speed. She definitely couldn’t drive stick and we had another car, but she didn’t or couldn’t drive then. Either her license was suspended or she simply never renewed. She was not a good driver. She was deeply anxious behind the wheel, completely lacking the calm confidence my aunts often displayed when they cruised around town.
My poor mother … all the demons in her head.
I have her to thank for being here. She brought me into this world and left me still wondering what the hell was going on. Will anyone ever have it figured out? I think not. And I think as a child, a human on this planet, it’s natural to expect our parents to have all the answers. It’s sort of mind blowing when you have your first of many experiences of your parent saying “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT ________.” It’s as though they’ve somehow fallen from Grace. I suppose it’s one of the reasons I, as a mother myself, often say to my own team, “Look, this is my first May 5, 2015 too… so give me some space here as I try to figure this out…” I think with my mother, she must’ve come from a world where mistakes and ignorance were simply disallowed. So when that happens: we lie and cover up and obfuscate and hide and snarl when confronted.
A few months ago, while looking for something at their house, I discovered her Virginia driver’s license from 1981. She was surprisingly cheerful in the image, but I’ve never known my mother to have a bad photo of her when she knows the shutter’s clicking. She was all smiley, full of optimism and excitement. I looked for a fake line or dead eyes in the image (inasmuch as municipal IDs allow details) but could find none.
I remember the first time I discovered her paperwork for a part-time job near the Virginia house. It was so odd, to see her handwriting on a government form. I had never known her to “have a job.” It seemed almost as though it were a rejection of her life as it was at the time — that she was going to bust out! and work at that shoe store and Make Big Things Happen!
But it wasn’t meant to be. She stayed there for a while, I remember that. But I also remember her (and have found notes relating such) working an angle with some of her co-workers to branch out, do their own thing, be their own bosses and start their own lines of handbags and shoes. Mom hated the idea of convention, that a “boss” was waiting at the end of the shift to initial her time card.
Who can blame her?
Those were really hard days. She was so manic and distracted and wild-eyed. Desperate-seeming to get away and redefine ____ in her life. I remember searching for her “in there” in her body… hoping she would reveal herself in a way that was relatable, that I could hook into or hold onto. Her sign was Gemini.
There’s no doubt to me that I loved her. In the way I could. In the way God gave us to one another with all our preferences and expectations and baggage. And she loved me, in her way.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I think actively of my children, less of my mother. Have I served them? Has my honesty been too much? In my quest to be the “anti-Mimi” I have lost sight of who I can be instead of who I avoid. That’s my wish for this coming Mother’s Day — to make good on it for 2016 and to begin to discover or maybe even embrace, as this next year unfolds, who I am instead of who I’m not.
So if your mom is still around, give her a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek for me. Raising you was not easy — regardless of whether you were a “good kid” or not — we mothers (even in the best of chemical circumstances) have so much stuff swirling around in our noggins: carpool, lunch, our menses schedule, medicine dosage, vaccine schedules, our medical appointments, your well-check appointments, music lessons, menopause, school test schedules, summer plans, vacation booking, shedding a few pounds — always!, oil changes for the car, mortgage payment, car repairs, walking the dog / aardvark / rabbit … that you’ve really no clue. If you’re a man or a growing male, just … make us dinner on Sunday and don’t give us shit if we decide to feed the kids cold cereal when you travel.