On Mother’s Day when we were kids, Dad would take us to a drugstore and buy hairbrushes, body lotion, athlete’s foot powder … you know, the sentimental stuff. He’d also pick up a Mother’s Day card and have us each scribble our names and affections on it. He always had leftover wrapping paper in the garage, and we’d take turns doing terrible wrapping jobs on the items. Each of us would claim one gift as our own. I tried to be glamorous and grab a lotion or a scented soap. If you didn’t move fast enough, you’d get the foot powder.
It was clear that Dad had done the picking, but each year, Mom clasped her hands together and kvelled (kind of like beaming in love) all the same, then dragged her three children to her chest in delight. It was suffocating, but it went with the turf.
By the time I was 10, I figured out a few things.
1) Dad was a lousy gift giver.
2) Mom didn’t care what the gifts were, as long we gave them.
3) Mom loved lilacs.
A neighbor’s tree exploded in fresh lilacs every year, right around Mother’s Day, and I decided to sneak over and acquire (steal) an armload of glorious, fresh lilacs to present to Mom. Our ragtag kitchen of cheap linoleum and paper plates took on the air of an eccentric garden with those pretty flowers sitting in a large glass apple sauce jar on our dinette set. I loved the smell, still do, but it may have something to do with the ecstasy of Mom’s face when I gave her the flowers. It became our annual mantra for five years:
“Oh, I love lilacs!”
“Yes, Mom, I know!”
Things changed right around the time I discovered that even though I was 16, I looked old enough to get into bars without being carded. I didn’t give a hoot about my mother’s love after that; I wanted to party! I also wanted to paint, fly, have friends my mother hated, smoke, explore, and in short, leave the nest!
By the time I was 17, I was living on my own, and Mother’s Day was a day when I called Mom and subjected myself to an hour of her prodding and digging about whether I would ever marry a nice Jewish boy. It was my gift to Mom, letting her eat my insides. It took me a few years to mention that not only would I not be marrying a nice Jewish boy, but if I did get married, it would probably be to a woman.
Eventually we found our way to back to each other. Mom was a poet, I am a writer, and we started to talk about the creative process. It was an amazing thing to find out that my housewife, over-possessive, couponing, bargain-hunting mother was actually a spectacularly creative soul. She even won a local poetry contest and got her name in the newspaper.
“Promise me, my Slovah (my Yiddish name), that you will write about me. I want you to immortalize me.”
“Of course, Mom, how could I not? There’s so much material!”
My parents were coming back from a trip to Florida, driving on 195 toward New Jersey when Mom went into cardiac arrest in North Carolina. She never made it home. I was 28 years old.
For many years after that, I didn’t know what to do with myself on Mother’s Day. I felt that the whole world was celebrating a day that I was locked out of. The lilacs at the Korean deli sent me into tears.
Then I decided I would spend Mother’s Day with her, death notwithstanding.
I bought an armload of lilacs (bought!), hired a car service and rode from my apartment in Manhattan to her grave in Staten Island. It’s an old Jewish cemetery that houses most of Mom’s line of the family. My grandparents and great-grandparents are there.
I laid out a towel next to Mom, and placed the flowers on her grave. FYI, this is a big no-no in Jewland. We don’t bring flowers; we place stones. But really, could we get any more depressing?!
I slathered suntan lotion on my arms and legs and lay down next to Mom.
Groups of mourners came by, horrified to find a woman in a hot pants and a tank top splayed out in the grass, but Mom would have liked it, and so did I.
I told her about my life. Whom I was cooking for, what I was writing about, whom I was dating, what made me happy, what made me sad.
She was a good listener.
I’d like to say I still do this every year; I don’t. But it got me through the hardest Mother’s Days.
Taking the car service back to Manhattan, I didn’t feel the cast-out sensation anymore. I looked out at the families coming back from brunch with Mom, happy and giddy. I spent the day with my mom, too! SO THERE!
I still feel an incredible loss on Mother’s Day. I suppose having a baby would have helped. Then I’d be Mom, too.
But it wasn’t my destiny to be a mom, maybe because I’m so busy mothering … EVERYONE!
Happy Mother’s Day to all the motherless daughters out there. It’s our day, too! Make it a great one!