Unmothered, on Mother’s Day

Remembering my mother on the holiday she hated.

My mother never liked Mother’s Day. She thought it was a fake holiday dreamed up by Hallmark to commodify deep sentiments that couldn’t be expressed with a card. So we never observed it when I was growing up. She would much rather have had our company for the first Saturday in May—she loved horse racing, and Derby Day most of all—than at an obligatory brunch at an overcrowded restaurant eight days later. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 things changed a little, for me at least. Suddenly Mother’s Day had some meaning. It became an inscribed moment to try to hold on to what was slipping away before my eyes: namely, having a mother.

This Mother’s Day is the second since she died, on Christmas Day, 2008 (I wrote about her death and my grief in Slate), but last year I was too dazed to notice much. Now, for the first time, the endless mentions of the holiday everywhere (“Make your Mother’s Day reservations now!”) have forced me to take stock, whether I want to or not. Where will I be on Sunday? Where am I now? I wonder. Mainly, I feel that while my grief has lessened—dramatically—my sense of being motherless has intensified. I hadn’t anticipated this. The first grips of grief were so terrible that I couldn’t wait to get beyond them, to a state I hoped might be “better.” But as each new day arrives I find myself, though suffering less acutely, more unmothered. Strange. And: not part of the contract!

People with mothers can’t really know what this is like, and I have new empathy for friends who lost their mothers when they were young. I was 32, but even at this age, it hardly feels minor to lose one’s model at a juncture when I still have so many questions: whether and when to have children, what to do about my mild allergy to the institution of marriage, what a life’s work should truly be. My mother was about my age  when she was promoted from schoolteacher to administrator, becoming head of the middle school at Saint Ann’s, where I was then entering the seventh grade. I remember how nervous she was speaking in public the first time, at a meeting the day before school started. She fretted all that morning, dressing. I agonized with her, because I was deeply shy, and such a task seemed heart-freezingly terrifying. Afterward I asked her how it went. She said, “You know, you just have to do it. You don’t have a choice. And then once you’ve done it, you can do it again, and it isn’t so bad.”

This was her pragmatic approach to life—not idealized, not perfectionistic, but intensely present. If you could be present, the rest would work itself out. Now, of course, she’s not present, and yet I have to figure out how I can be. One thing that helps is summoning up her words and her jokes—even her little rebukes; I might get irritated by something trivial, and then I catch myself saying (often out loud) the very refrain of hers that used to so irritate me: “Lighten up, Meg.” In fact, as the grief passed, I began to feel my mother inside me—usually on holidays or in groups. I’m not much like my mother; that role falls to my brothers, who have more of her blithe and freewheeling spirit. But lately there are these moments when it’s as if her spirit enters and inhabits me; it’s palpable, like being possessed. The word inspiration comes from the Latin words for “in” and “breath” (spirare, which also gives us our word for “spirit”). Maybe I’ve breathed my mother in.

The author with her mother

On Easter, two of my mother’s best friends and their families came over to my father’s, and I went too. I found myself making a little joke that I thought my mother would’ve made over dinner. I hid Easter Eggs with her friend Diana for her three young sons. The chaos of life suddenly seemed more absurd than it ever had—for example, when the dog started eating the Easter egg I’d thought I’d cunningly placed behind the barbecue. (A week later, I was having dinner with an old friend who lost her father almost 10 years ago. I asked her how her life had changed following his death. She paused and thought. “Mostly, the world seems funnier,” she said.) That weekend both my mother’s friends said: At moments, you remind me of your mother more than ever. It’s not my doing, I think; it’s hers.

I think about my mother every day. But usually the thoughts are fleeting—she crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely … gone. Which is to say, I don’t think concertedly about her as much as I used to. Mother’s Day forces me to do that. What comes to me this year—the gift I wish I could give her—are all the things I never said along the way about how much her example meant to me, particularly the way she was able to go with the flow, never letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and nearly always making a joke out of the situation, even when, as usual, our family turned up late to a wedding, covered in dog hair because the retriever puppy wouldn’t stay in the way back of the station wagon, but leapt onto us where we squirmed in our “good clothes.” Or when, in the hospital two weeks before her death, she misread the “Diabetic Menu” as the “Deathbed” menu and laughed so hard tears came out of her eyes.

But I think a lot about one moment: Once when I was in college, my parents had a dinner party with some teachers. It was a festive midwinter affair and everyone got a little lit on red wine. As two young teachers were talking past us, my mother leaned over to me and said, “I just wrote my mother a letter about what she meant to me. We’re really bad at saying these things in my family”—my mother came from a traditional Irish Catholic family, gifted at merriment, teasing, and storytelling, bad at expressing emotions—”but she’s had breast cancer and I wanted her to know. And it made me think about you, and how there are so many things I don’t say to you, but I want you to know.” What she said next was just that she loved me and was proud of me, but those words, prefaced by her sharing a piece of her experience of what it was like for her to be in the world, meant much more than the same words in any other context. I recall clearly the sensation I had—a squeezing, falling one, a silly, encompassing flush of love. And also this: In that moment I could see her as more than my mom; I could see her as a daughter, a person who’d had to make her own way in the world, who had to learn to speak in public, to command authority—things she did by now with such ease you’d never guess that once they struck her nearly mute with fear.

 In Motherless Daughters, journalist Hope Edelman notes that “the motherless child symbolizes a darker, less fortunate self. Her plight is everyone’s nightmare, at once impossible to imagine and impossible to ignore. Yet to openly acknowledge her loss would mean to acknowledge the same potential for one’s self.” Edelman is talking specifically about children who lose their mothers at a young age—but, in a sense, losing a close mother at any age is a nightmare. The mother-child bond can be so strong, so unlike any other, that it is categorically irreplaceable. Unmothered is not a word in the dictionary, but, I often find myself thinking it should be. The “real” word most like it—it never escapes me—is unmoored. The irreplaceability is what becomes stronger—and stranger—as the months pass: Am I really she who has woken up again without a mother? Yes, I am.

It’s funny what stays with you about a person. My brothers and I talk a lot about my mother’s driving. She was a great driver, with an extremely (and uncharacteristically) foul mouth. When Eamon, my youngest brother, was little, she used to drive him to and from his baby-sitter in Brooklyn on her own way to school. I was asking him (now 22) what he remembered most about her, and he said, “The way she wanted everything to be fun.” (My brother Liam said this too: “Things were just better when she was around.”) Eamon reminded me of a game our mother used to like to play on the way home: the game of not getting stuck at a red light. This meant that sometimes she’d take a different route than usual, that sometimes she pressed the gas pedal a bit harder than she should have, and that at other times she dawdled, taking her time rolling down a block so she’d reach the light just as it turned green. Whenever anyone cut her off and acted wishy-washy (she hated wishy-washy) she’d honk the horn; hitting the brakes, she inevitably said, “You asshole,” slowly and expressively. Once, she had a meeting, and my dad drove my brother to work. Eamon was then about 2½ , with blond, cherubic curls. Someone cut off my dad. He hit the brakes. Silence. Then, from the back seat, a lilting voice: “You ath-hole.” A dubious legacy, I suppose you might say, but I told my brother this story the other day and he didn’t remember it. (No harm, no foul.) What he did remember about our mother was this: “She was very warm to lie next to, like a blanket.”

As much as the talking, the model-providing, the advice, it’s that we miss: the blanketing warmth. One of the women Edelman interviewed for her book said, movingly, about being motherless: “You have to learn how to be a mother for yourself. You have to become that person who says, ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing fine. You’re doing the best you can.’ Sure, you’ll call friends who say that to you. … But hearing it from that person who taped up all your scraped knees … that’s the one you keep looking for.” Perhaps that’s why now—though I’m usually very polite in public—when I drive, I hit the horn more than I used to. The other day I rolled down my window and said, softly into the air, “You asshole.”

Oh, and Mom: Todd Pletcher’s Super Saver won the Derby this year, with Calvin Borel onboard, for his third of four Derby wins. That man is a rainmaker.

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