Mother’s Day is here, once again. It’s somewhat fraught for me. My mother died when I was 10. It was awful of course, and so were the events leading up to it. My mom was a beautiful flower, a daffodil with red tulip tendencies. She was full of love, charismatic and troubled. And she liked to drive drunk, pulling me along for the ride. Not a good quality in a parent. But I forgive her and love her still. Who wouldn’t? Just look at her, with me on her lap, safe and curious and brand new.
We need to talk about our parents in order for anyone to know us. I haven’t talked about her publicly because it’s such a difficult story. I don’t like to lay it on people or exploit it, but I’m not looking for sympathy anymore. I was for much of my life; I needed it. We all need it sometimes. People talk about looking for sympathy like it’s a bad thing. “Oh she just wants people to feel sorry for her.” So what?
For decades, I have envied people who could call their mothers. I sat in awe, like there was some kind of magic involved: You can just pick up your phone and reach her? It’s such a basic thing, it feels like like a right. The words “call” and “mom” are bound like an indomitable natural force, like the moon and the tide. I used to say I’d give my right arm to speak with my mother just one more time. That has changed as my right arm has done a lot of great things: learned to play guitar, put that guitar in the hands of a sick or traumatized child, reach for my husband in the night. Should I sacrifice something so essential to my life to talk to a dead person? Perhaps I digress.
I actually got a second mother when my dad remarried. She didn’t marry him because she wanted his kids. She had her own. My brother and sister and I were simply part of the deal. But she figured she could cope. It would only be 5 years until I, the youngest, was off to college and she could have him to herself. She got her wish. We were banished in a way, emotional orphans. Everything had changed.
Not long after my mother died, my father and I started hanging out. We’d go for drives on Saturdays, take the dogs and wander out into the rough Michigan country side, build fires and roast marshmallows on sticks he’d find and carve into perfect points. Sometimes as I sat by the fire, he’d walk off by himself, lean up against a tree and look off into the distance. I could never see his face but I always thought he was talking to my mom. I never asked him what he was doing out there. It felt so private. But he’d walk back, we’d load up the car and go home. After he married my stepmother, we were never allowed to do things like that again. I was not allowed to be alone with him. Too much a reminder of his past for her, perhaps.
The years went by. I became an adventurer. I landed in New York City where I met my future husband. When we decided we wanted to get married, I took him to meet my Dad and stepmother, now living in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. She didn’t want to give me a wedding. She offered to give me some money to have the wedding off somewhere else, away from my dad, where she wouldn’t have to do anything. Understandable in one sense: my dad had become an invalid, so she had her hands full. But I wanted that traditional experience of my dad—who could barely stand anymore—walking me down the aisle.
I got that, but not without a fight. “I want my dad to walk me down the aisle,” I told her. She acquiesced, and we proceeded to plan the wedding over the phone. I remember calling them when I found my wedding dress—vintage cotton organdy with a nice whip cream skirt—at a boutique on the upper east side. I was so nervous, knowing I would have to justify the cost. I told them it was $300 less than it really was, and also decided I’d just order and pay for of the invitations myself.
I went down to Arkansas a week before the wedding to take care of all the last minute details. During those seven days, something happened. As we went to the florist and the baker, met with the photographer, discussed just how to get my dad down the aisle, got our last minute manicures, and picked out something old and new, borrowed and blue, we became mother and daughter. We had fun. I tried to make some things easier on her and she appreciated it. She made sure to give me a check for the invitations before we went off on our honeymoon. She cried when we walked out the door. So did I. I’m crying now. I’m not sure what happened. I think maybe she just started to love me.
It was a wonderful thing to get another mother, to have someone to tell things to, especially after my father died: Hey Mommie, I just sent you my new record! Hey Mommie, I’m going on tour in Europe! Hey Mommie, I’m going to work at the UN! Hey Mommie, I’ll be down for your birthday! Yes, I took to calling her “Mommie”. “Mom” was just never a possibility and calling her by her first name, Irene, started to feel too distant and dismissive of the intimacy we’d achieved.
The down side to getting another mother is that you have to lose her. I would have to lose two because that’s the law. And lose her I did, a year and a half ago. It was a sad story with a happy ending; we started out enemies and competitors but ended up real family. We weren’t born into it. We had to earn it, in our own way, in our own time.
So I survived and thrived in the shadow of the daffodil with red tulip tendencies, and under the reign of the “evil stepmother” who changed. That’s why I so often feel like I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I could have surrendered. My soul could have shriveled. I could have been crushed under the weight of adult feet. But I emerged in tact and I don’t know why. I think I was born with something that refused to be extinguished, and I think I have my mother to thank for that—the one who birthed me and bounced me on her knee. She couldn’t stay, but here I am, two thirds into my life and still finding new corners to turn, new neighborhoods to move through. Good god I just wrote a new song! Still here, still creating, still discovering surprising new depths to joy.
I give thanks to my mothers, who were clearly not perfect, but they probably did their best. Yours is probably not perfect either. But she’s what this world gave you. The world will take her too, because that’s the law. I think the best we can do is to try and have no regrets, or as few as possible, when it comes to what we’ve done in this most entwined of all relationships.
And so dear reader, I wish you luck with that, love (of course), the richness of an examined life, and a very, very happy Mother’s Day.