Mother’s Day is only four days away now. This particular holiday always makes me a little bit sad. I remember my mother and wonder how we would have celebrated it this coming Sunday, when she would have been eighty-eight and I am just rounding the corner into sixty-three.
My mother never saw her twenty-first Mother’s Day. In October of 1974, on an autumn day marked by the leaves on the swamp maples behind our home turning brilliant orange and red, and under a sky the color of a robin’s egg, she took her own life. She was only forty-five.
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that I feel a little blue about Mother’s Day, considering that my Mom thought that observing it as a holiday was silly. “Hallmark invented Mother’s Day,” she always declared. “It’s just an excuse to make money on a bunch of sappy cards.” Despite this, she always enjoyed the breakfast in bed that Joy and I cooked when we were children living at home, and the handmade cards we labored over in grammar school. She was a mercurial and often inconsistent woman.
Perhaps her disillusionment with this particular holiday came from her conflict over being a mother to begin with. She always felt inadequate, unable to cope, and was hard on herself. The reality was that she suffered from an undiagnosed and totally uncontrolled bipolar disorder that sometimes made the selflessness mothering requires very difficult. Now I wish I could just reassure her: how great a mother she was when illness moved over to let love in.
She took the time to spend an hour or two away from her writing each day after the school bus had dropped me off in the afternoon. She stood by the riding ring for countless horse shows in the worst weather, cheering for both my sister and me as we jumped over fences big enough to scare even the most intrepid mother–and in spite of the fact that she both hated and feared the beasts that towered over her.
She comforted me with intense empathy when I lost a girl or boy friend I depended on or loved, and was always there with a hug and kiss that brought true solace. She had a great sense of adventure, and when I was a high school sophomore even bleached my hair blond because it was the most desired color among the popular girls; I’ll never forget the two of us bent over the bathroom sink with rubber gloves and Miss Clairol. She never made a single comment about my early attempts at poetry that was not kind and generous, and so created a strong and unbreakable bond between us through our love of writing.
When her bipolar disorder was controlled, she was a great Mom. If I’d known enough then to tell her that, perhaps then she would have enjoyed Mother’s Day more.
In the end, she died alone, without either one of her daughters by her side, in the grasp of an overwhelming depression. This is something that will always haunt me–that, in the end, I wasn’t able to do more for her. Anna Quindlen says in her new novel, Miller’s Valley: “Maybe my mother would have said the same thing I wanted to say [to my sons]: it’s a lot harder to save people than you think it is.”
I have reminded myself of exactly this over the last forty years since her suicide. I couldn’t save her. Her self-destructive urges won out in the end. So, this year I shake off that sense of guilt and try not to be too sad on Mother’s Day–to remember instead the wonderful gifts she gave me, and all she continues to mean to me.
In the years since 1983, when my first son was born, I have spent this holiday thinking about my own children, as well. They, too, made me cards when they were kids and brought me breakfast in bed. Now, in their thirties, they remember to phone and wish me a happy Mother’s Day. I hope they’ve found me to be as good a Mom as mine was.
And so I’ll celebrate my mother this coming Sunday, remembering all we shared, and laughing at her yearly declaration that the holiday is just a gimmick–as I actually find myself agreeing with her now. My sister and I used to complain and whine that there was no “Children’s Day” and to that she always retorted, with a laugh, that every day was Children’s Day. How right she turned out to be. And how lucky I am to have been her daughter.