Celebrating Mother’s Day when Mom’s not there

We all know what moms are supposed to be: patient, kind and loving. They are supposed to know how to sing lullabies and kiss boo-boo’s. They are supposed to cook and clean and decorate cupcakes like it’s nobody’s business. They are supposed to work hard at home and at work and be good friends, good daughters, good sisters and aunts. But most importantly?

They are supposed to be there.

Moms should be there when it counts: at our sporting events and school plays. For our first kiss, first job, first marriage. Moms should be there when you become a mom and join the ‘hood. They should be there for every baby thereafter. Moms should be there forever.

But what happens when they’re not? What do you do when they leave or get sick or die? What do you do when they are there but disconnected, in a “lights are on but nobody’s there” way? What do you do when they are there but you wish they weren’t? And then Mother’s Day comes along, with its high expectations for a Norman Rockwell (or should I say Normal Rockwell) day?

My mom died on March 18, 1994. It was six months before my wedding. By the time her cancer was diagnosed, it was too late, but we didn’t know it then, my sister, father and I. We didn’t have Google or WebMD then; hope was all we had. But that was a long time ago, right? I’m done with that, right? With two kids of my own now, Mother’s Day should be a snap. Right??

But what I am learning is that when there are all these things a mom is supposed to be, you are never “done” coming to terms with the loss of a parent. Your grief merely changes shape over time. My mom and I did not always see eye to eye. She died before I really came into my own as a person, so I like to think that we would have become friends. But I’ll never really know.

I am (mostly) OK with this. I don’t cry anymore on Mother’s Day. I don’t choke up anymore when I see a mother and daughter walking in the mall who look so alike there is no doubt they are mother/daughter. But  seeing my older sister being a grandparent to her grandchildren, I feel the sadness and loss of what my children will never experience. When my elderly neighbors invite their adult children and the grandchildren over for Sunday dinner, there is something about the sight of the grey-haired couple standing on their porch stoop, waving goodbye as everyone backs out of the driveway…it’s the sting of what will never be.

I know what a mom is supposed to be. But here’s what my mom really was: she insisted on family dinners every Sunday. She wore her hair in a beehive long after it ceased being fashionable (it was once, right?). She never got her hair wet in the pool and she could sew a pantsuit like it was nobody’s business. She made the best homemade chicken noodle soup. She loved McDonald’s but maybe Long John Silver’s a little more. She read People magazine and The Star and Enquirer. She loved Elizabeth Taylor. She told me I could go to college someday, even though no one else in our family, herself included, had ever gone.

When she died, I didn’t know how to be a wife or mother. She was a buffer between being a kid and a grown-up and when she died, it was like the earth cracked open and I lost everything, myself included. But here’s the thing: I got stronger, too.

I learned how to decorate a house and order window treatments. I never learned how to sew but I did learn that a tailor and a dry cleaner work even better. I learned how to cook for 20 and make pie crusts from scratch. I learned that life is short and tomorrow doesn’t always come, so I finished my grad school application and got that MFA I’d been thinking about. I learned that if I wanted something, I was going to have to get it for myself. And while I missed Mom’s stamp of approval on my life, there is something liberating about charting your own course, free of someone else’s idea of what it should look like. My life felt more real because I had more at stake and no one to blame but me if I failed.

I remember after one particularly bitter fight when I was about 12, my mom gave me a long look and said, “You’re going to write about this some day, aren’t you?” I gave her my best eye roll and a snotty ‘tween look, but deep down, we both knew she was right. Dammit.

Miss you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Mother’s Day when Mom’s not there

  1. I know it’s late to be responding to this, since Mother’s Day is already past, but still wanted to anyway..

    Your post brought tears to my eyes – I can so relate to your thoughts. My dad died when I was 23 and then mom was diagnosed with Alzheimers not long after. I too had to chart my own course, and have often wondered what advice or guidance they would have given me along the way.

    I am sad that my kids will never know my parents. They did know Grandma Dorothy, my mom, but only after she was well into her battle with Alzheimer’s and living in a nursing home. They still remember her, but will never get to experience what a great person she was. She wasn’t perfect, and no parent is, but I can think of no other person in my life who was more accepting of others than my mom. My friends all loved her, and gathered at our house because they were all so comfortable with her. When one of my friends told us he was gay, she was right there with us supporting him by going to a gay bar. That night still is vivid in my mind – we all had a wonderful evening. She was the best role model for showing unconditional love and acceptance. Thank you Mom for that. I love you and miss you.

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