Why is it that, while I have been a mother four times over and for 35 years, I still think Mother’s Day is for my mom?
And not only do I miss her (she died in 2001), but I really, really regret all those years I believed my father when he said all she wanted for Mother’s Day was a couple of flats of pansies, which we dutifully helped him pick out. She planted them.
My children know better. Much better. So much better that this year my three daughters gave me exactly the same thing for Mother’s Day: the book *Eat, Memory*, a book of essays by writers about food and cooking. By the time I opened the third one, I was laughing so hard, I was crying. They nailed it: I love to read; I love to write; I love to cook. As for my son and his wife, they sent a bottle of wine. Again, pretty perfect. I felt beloved, known, and cared about. By my children.
Aye, there’s the rub. Wasn’t that my mother’s job? Was that what I’d been feeling I was missing – even recently – some kind of acceptance by my mother, some sense that sometimes – just sometimes – what I said and felt and did and wanted mattered? The guilt I was feeling about those damned pansies morphed quickly into anger and hurt – not only that I never knew my mother well enough to know what she would really like as a gift from a daughter, but that she never let me get close enough to know. She rarely made me feel beloved, known (accepted), and cared about; and she was my mother! I admired her, I loved her, I knew how busy she was, and how much she did for other people, especially my grandparents and my father, and all four of us kids. I knew she was smart, clever, and competitive, and she loved a good time. She served on the school board, taught Sunday School, and ran the town’s Centennial Celebration. She played golf and bridge and, briefly, tennis. She didn’t whine, or bitch or complain. From dawn on, she was constantly in motion. She never sat down – except for lunch or to drive to town – never, say, for a soda when we came home from school, or a cup of tea. She didn’t sit down until the cocktail hour. And then, after a drink or two, she retreated even further beyond my grasp; you simply couldn’t reach her – unless you did something to make her angry, which, because it wasn’t pretty, I judiciously avoided.
So when, exactly, was I going to get to know her? When would we, literally, be in each other’s presence? Or presents, hers and mine? Not often after life got complicated. Not often, that is, after I was 2 Â½ and my sister was born and we had moved in with my paternal grandmother and my mother dutifully took on all the concomitant responsibilities.
How’s this for a graphic description of our relationship: the most intimate conversations I recall ever having with my mother took place through a bathroom door, when she was on the toilet, when I thought I might corner her and force her to stop and listen to me and respond with something meaningful that I needed to hear? The meaningful never happened; she would very literally flush away all feelings.
***Daughter***: *Mom, I’m not sure I really should get married.*
***Mother***: *You’ve just been engaged too long. That’s what happens. You’ll be fine.* FLUSH
***Daughter***: *I got a job, Mom – working for the newspaper! I’m so excited! Now all I have to do is line up the child care for the kids.*
***Mother***: *That’s nice dear. But didn’t you already do that?*
***Daughter***: *Do what?*
***Mother***: *The career thing. You’ve done it already. What are you trying to prove now?* FLUSH
***Daughter***: *Have you been to see Jean (her best friend) since she found out she has cancer?*
***Mother***: *No, she doesn’t want to see me now.*
***Daughter***: *What do you mean?*
***Mother***: *She’s sick. She doesn’t want me to see her like that. I’ll just remember the good times.*
***Daughter***: *But, what if . . .*
Don’t take it from me. Mom knew she was trapped when she was in the bathroom. So when she and Dad built a new house, she put the master bath as far away from any household traffic as was possible. Really. You had to go upstairs, turn left into the master bedroom, walk by the study, pass the built-in dressing table (it was the 60’s), continue through the hall lined by closets, and turn another corner to get to the bathroom! As she said, even the dog couldn’t find her there. And when she built their retirement house all on one level, she did the same thing: she put the bathroom in the most remote corner, as away from everything and everybody as she could. She would, clearly, go to all lengths to avoid emotional engagement – with me, anyway – and there is no evidence that my sisters and brother fared any better. (While my brother did an outstanding job of acting out and demanding a disproportionate amount of attention, the result was not that he and Mom had a closer, more-worked-out relationship; it was Mom’s further withdrawal from the rest of us. Mom told one of my sisters she would never let anyone hurt her like that again.)
So Mom was there for us – without being there. She didn’t miss a piano or choir concert; she didn’t miss a meal; she showed up for graduations; she planned and executed the weddings; she put me back on my feet after the birth of each child. But as to what she was feeling or thinking, I have no clue. I believe she was someone I would have liked to have known. I’d like to believe she would have liked me, too. Even now, though, when I forget she’s gone and reach for the phone to call to tell her something I think she’d enjoy, I compound that grief of remembered loss with the frustration of never really knowing how she would have responded, anyway, if we would, serendipitously, communicate, or, more likely, simply talk at one another, exchanging banal information.
This failure to connect is the void I live with these days. Finally, I know what it is.
It has crippled some of my relationships. Because for the longest time I thought my mother was the perfect mother (don’t we all?) I modeled my behavior on hers when my children were young; I stayed very busy, acted very responsibly and was often not sufficiently engaged in the messiness of being family – but I think I finally recovered. I believe my children ultimately saw me – and knew me -- as a whole person, replete with flaws. Over the years, I have also demanded too much of other people I care deeply about – my friends, my daughters, my spouse – when I now know that I am not in control at any given moment of how close they let me be, how well they let me know them, how reciprocal our caring about one another might be.
And what is germane about all of this to the third third, I think, is that if, as it appears, Life is Short, I want to make sure it is rich and full. I want to “do” less and “be” more. I want to be open to meaningful human connections at every opportunity, to enjoy those that develop and even those that don’t, to nurture and savor my relationships, to know – and be known to – myself and others.
And next Mother’s Day I will, probably, again, first think of my mother – and be grateful my kids don’t give me pansies, and thank Mom for all I’ve learned.
*What is it about our relationships with our mothers that is so powerful?* Please add your thoughts and experiences in a comment below.
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