In May 1970, my mom was at the halfway point of her first pregnancy. Back then, I don’t think expecting mothers were honored like they are today. My mom was probably focused on honoring her own mother.
I used to think Mother’s Day was just a made-up Hallmark holiday, but a quick Google search told me it was started in 1908 by Anna Jarvis to honor her late mother, Ann, who was a peace activist and nurse of wounded Civil War soldiers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Wikipedia reports Jarvis’ intention was to honor her mother’s life by continuing her work with “Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues.”
In the Land of the Free, as with so many good-intentioned efforts, capitalism and commercialism quickly turned Jarvis’ vision of Mother’s Day into a money-making opportunity for greeting card companies, candy makers and all sorts of other peddlers eager to cash in on the desire to show Mom how much she means to us. Ugh.
Even now that I’m a mom myself, I don’t think much about Mother’s Day because of the stupid pressure media and vendors put on people to prove their undying devotion to ‘the She who gave us life.’
As if with one day, we can wipe away the prior year of being too busy, too tired, too grumpy, too lazy, to simply take a few moments out of our busy lives to fold our arms around our mothers’ shoulders and sit with her, listen to her, ask her about a memory or take her out to lunch.
Recently I was listening to the public radio program “Fresh Air” in which Terry Gross interviewed poet laureate for the state of New York, Marie Howe. Of the poems featured, the one that struck me was about the death of the author’s mother titled “My Mother’s Body.”
Prior to reading it, Howe shared that she was the oldest of 9 children and that sometimes, when the oldest is a daughter, women can struggle separating from their mothers.
I don’t think Mom and I struggled. Rather, it was like Thor and Odin, lots of shouting and ranting and screaming. I couldn’t wait to get away from my mother and off on my own! God forbid I listen to her, recognize her discipline as love, see the fear behind her efforts to tame her wild daughter.
Listening to the poet Howe talk about her mother, I found myself wondering about my own, about the woman she was before she became “Mom.” Those nine months when her working and walking would rock me like a soft cradle, when her talking was the muffled song that lulled me, when her slumber was undoubtedly the time for my fetus-self to jump around and party. Who was she?
I’m sure she had all the universal thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, hesitations and questions so many of us do when we’re carrying our precious cargo.
There’s only a few things Mom has shared about her pregnancy. One, that in 1970, doctors let women labor for hours until the urge to push came and then they were sedated.
Those of us who have labored know the relief the urge to push brings and how frustrated Mom said she was, “You labor for that long and when you’re finally ready to push, they put you to sleep!”
Mom also gets perturbed remembering that at just 2 weeks old, her doctor ordered her to feed me skim milk because I was too fat. “Can you imagine?!” she’d sigh, “but you just didn’t question things back then.”
We all get a good laugh out of it, but there’s a part of me that feels bad . . . not for me, but for Mom. Obviously she was doing a pretty great job of taking care of me and how was she rewarded? By being told she was doing it too well!
While I’m sure she was a little scared about having a child to care for, when it comes to babies I’ve never thought of Mom as anything other than fearless. Like when our own Moira came home from the hospital and I was totally freaked out and clueless. With her host of feeding issues, I felt a constant panic that she would die at any moment.
Mom instinctively knew when to step in and help. Whether it was doing dishes in the kitchen while I fed Moira in the living room, I never felt more safe then when my mom was at the house. Whenever she was there, I knew that for the time being, Moira would live and everything would be ok.
When all else fails . . . when the sky is falling and you’ve nowhere to hide . . . when you’re beaten down and no one’s in your corner, Mom arrives and things are instantly less scary.
Though I’ve never admitted it, I’ve always needed her, and no Hallmark card or flower arrangement can ever express that. My mom is in me . . . in my own hands starting to weather with age; in my own eyes, that squint shut when we laugh; in the smile wrinkles on my cheeks that no longer smooth out once our laughter subsides.
I watch her, and see that everything is, and will be, okay. . . And for that, no thanks will ever be enough. I love you, Mom.
Originally published 10 May 2014 in The Observer.