Mother’s Day was never celebrated in a big way in my home when I was a kid. My father would go to the local drugstore and buy the most syrupy card he could find, plus a large box of assorted Whitman or Russell Stover chocolates. He bought the same thing every year, and my mother reacted with the same level of disgust every year. The card, a treacly tribute to the most amazing wife and mother ever, gave offense since there wasn’t much indication my father actually felt that way towards my mother in real life. The chocolates gave offense because my mother wasn’t much of a chocolate lover, and my father always bought the kind of chocolates that had about a ten-to-one bad to good chocolate ratio. For my part, I was always glad to see the box of chocolates, because my mother had no problem with us kids eating them all.
In general, my mother wasn’t a fan of the big empty gesture, and even well-intentioned gifts made her uncomfortable. Among her favorite gifts were new bras and panties, which she generally got for her birthday and/or Christmas. My siblings who live in the Detroit area would bring her a seafood dinner, or the occasional bouquet of flowers, for Mother’s Day. Since I live out of state, what she really seemed to appreciate most from me was a phone call. So I called my mother, every Mother’s Day, until she died. I didn’t get to enjoy her physical presence on Mother’s Day, but I got to hear her voice.
Before I had kids, our conversations were generally stilted, perfunctory – I’m well, school is going great, the job is fine. I’d tell her about places I’d traveled to, but that was about it. I really didn’t want to tell my mother about that party I went to, or the new guy I met who had no intention of breaking up with his girlfriend, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t still see each other.
When I became a mother, though, our relationship began to deepen. “You?” she said, when I told her I was pregnant. “I didn’t think you wanted kids.” I had never said I didn’t want kids, but I had never shown any particular interest in them until I had my own. Becoming a mother for the first time in my thirties was like finally deciding to pledge a sorority, grad chapter. I’d finally gained admittance to a special club, which meant my mother and I opened up to each other in small ways that we really hadn’t done before. Talking about the kids took up much of our conversations, but it was during these conversations that I learned that my always-confident mother had faced her own insecurities, as both a wife and a mother.
In a weird way, my divorce brought my mother and I even closer together. My parents never divorced, but their marriage was miserable. When I tearfully confessed to my mother all the unhappiness and abuse I was enduring, her words – “You’re describing my marriage” – were the catalyst that made me consult a divorce lawyer. I was determined never to have that same “you’re describing my marriage” conversation with my own daughter.
After my divorce, my mother enjoyed prompting me to share evil bastard stories with her – mine about my ex, hers about my dad. Sometimes, I would find myself saying to her, in my head, “You do realize this is my father you’re talking about, and I loved him.” But I’d heard versions of the your-Daddy-was-a-lowdown-dirty-dog stories for most of my life. When my father died, I learned to separate my mother’s feelings – which were based on her experiences with her husband – from my feelings, which were based on my experiences with my dad. My mother wanted to share painful memories with me, woman to woman, believing me to be sympathetic because of my own difficult marriage. More often than not, I listened and shared as well, not to rehash the past, but as a way of bonding with her.
This year for Mother’s Day, my kids made me breakfast – pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon – and then, for the most part, left me alone. We normally go to brunch or dinner on Mother’s Day – on my dime, of course – but I just wasn’t up to it this year. I went to early morning yoga, then, after breakfast, spent the day in bed, reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. My kids have become pretty good at sensing when I need to be by myself.
At one point during the day, I got up and spent a few minutes talking to my daughter, mostly about relationships – mine, hers, and those of friends and family. During the conversation, as we chuckled about the silly ways of boys and men, she said: “See? This is why we’re friends.”
I was taken aback for a second, remembering all the admonishments about why one shouldn’t be friends with one’s children. And then I realized it’s true: I am her mother. But I am also her friend. The lines between mother and friend are pretty distinct, as they must be at her age. There are many events from my life I cannot share with with my daughter until she’s much older. Yet I can say, unequivocally, that she is my friend.
I was friends with my mother, too – and it’s our friendship that I miss the most. I miss being able to tell her all the things I used to save up to tell her during our weekly conversations. I miss hearing the stories she used to repeat, forgetting she’d already told me. I almost never said to her, “You already told me that, Mom.” Instead, I would listen out for some new detail, which made the story almost new again.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had recurring dreams about lions. I told the kids, “I’d better call Grandma and have her look up lion for me in her dream book.”
My daughter said, “Call Grandma?”
I realized as soon as I said it, of course. I don’t usually slip up and say I’m going to call her, not anymore. But I want to call her all the time.
An article in the May 6, 2014 edition of New York Magazine, “The Day I Started Lying to Ruth,” about a cancer doctor who lost his wife to cancer, has one of the best descriptions of grief I’ve ever read:
“It turns out that Hollywood has grief and loss all wrong. The waves and spikes don’t arrive predictably in time or severity….It’s not sobbing, collapsing, moaning grief. It’s phantom-limb pain. It aches, it throbs, there’s nothing there, and yet you never want it to go away.”
I didn’t miss my mother on Mother’s Day because it was Mother’s Day. I missed her on Mother’s Day because I miss talking to her. I miss my friend. At times, the pain is almost unbearable. And I hope it never stops.