Every year, I tell my sons what I’d like for Mother’s Day: a letter. Something, anything, on paper, that I can keep close at hand for a while, re-read till I’ve memorized each line, and then tuck away in a drawer to save and read again. For me, words written from the heart are more precious than anything that could be bought from a store. I don’t always get my wish, nor do I always take the time to write to my own mother. (Yes, it really is so much easier to buy a card, choose some flowers, indulge in a nice dinner out.)
This year, Jack is at home and we’ll spend the entire day together. With Steve and Henry both on a trip, Jack offered to join me in my annual spring “cleanse” and we’ve been partners all week in this challenging endeavor, juicing and eating raw fruits and veggies and practicing yoga. His presence, and his willingness to try — wholeheartedly! — what he calls “the mom lifestyle” for a week has been a gift in itself. (In a few minutes, we’ll have our Mother’s Day breakfast together: a green smoothie with kale and sunflower seeds. And then we’ll head off to yoga class — my idea of a very happy Mother’s Day indeed.)
I used to mourn the end of my sons’ childhoods, especially on Mother’s Day, nostalgic for the years of breakfast in bed, Crayola cards, my sons’ eager assistance as we planted the flowers my husband had helped them pick out at the nursery. But I’ve finally made my peace with what is now long over. Last weekend we watched Henry’s first class of jazz students perform at a May Day celebration. It was a full-circle moment. Nine years ago, he was the fourteen-year-old freshman trying out his jazz chops at the dessert cafe on May Day, and now he’s returned to his old high school to teach jazz himself. My heart swelled, my eyes brimmed, just as they always did at every school event. “Now” may be the only time there is, but “now,” these days, comes with an even deeper appreciation for time passing, the moments layered with memories and associations and gratitude. As I grow older, “now” becomes ever richer, deeper, more precious.
Jack’s life in Atlanta, far from us, suits him. He comes home now as an adult visiting, not as a child returning. And so, knowing our time under this roof is brief, I sense a new willingness on both our parts to stretch toward one another, to find and inhabit the common ground, to accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies with affection. At twenty-one and twenty-four, my sons “get” me very well indeed. And I think they know this, too — much as I will always love receiving a handwritten letter on Mother’s Day, the best gift they can possibly give me is their own health and happiness, the very fact of their busy, full, well-lived lives.
I wonder if my own mother feels the same, having watched her two children grow up and marry, become parents and raise families themselves? I suspect so. What she wants at 78 is not more “stuff,” she’s getting rid of things, not accumulating them. Nor does she have any desire to be the center of our lives. What she wants, surely what every mother wants, is more time to bear witness to her children’s continuous unfolding, to share in the ups and downs of our everyday thisses and thats.
I don’t often pause to think about it, and yet my mom is the one person who has been right here, at my side and on my side, from the moment I drew my very first breath. How to ever fully appreciate the woman whose presence and love and example have shaped me into the adult I am? How to capture even a small part of the sharing, sacrificing, and support she has given me over the years? Of course, she’d probably appreciate a letter herself.
I can’t possibly do you justice in a letter, or give voice to all the memories, but here are just a few that come to mind as I think back:
I remember the bracelet, dark red and blue shoe-buttons strung on elastic, that I made for you in kindergarten when I was five, the first Mother’s Day gift fashioned by my hand. I remember seeing it for years, tucked in the corner of the jewelry box on your dresser where you kept it, loved and treasured if not worn.
I remember soft pajamas with feet and Sunday night suppers served on TV trays in the living room. You gave us Welsh rabbit on Saltines, milk in gray plastic mugs with brightly colored rims, The Wonderful World of Disney, and a bedtime that was the same every night. I remember lullabies and “Mairzie Doates,” and “Tell Me Why the Stars Do Shine” and the comfort of knowing, because you told me again and again, that I was good and well-loved and would always be taken care of.
I remember the first deliberate lie I tried to get away with — “the cat did it” — and how you somehow saw right through my five-year-old fabrication and gave me time to figure out for myself that the truth would be better.
I remember that I could not, would not, put my face under water at the Air Force pool. I remember that, to my huge relief, you didn’t make me do it. And I also remember two small Dutch dolls, a girl and a boy, with wooden shoes and painted faces. I remember you giving them to me on a hot summer day for no reason at all, except, perhaps, because that was the afternoon when I finally coaxed my terrified self all the way into that pool.
I remember peeking through the keyhole of your bedroom door late at night, hoping for a black and white glimpse of Danny Kaye on TV, and hoping I wouldn’t get in too much trouble if you found me crouching there. I remember you taking me by the hand and leading me back to bed and tucking me in with a kiss.
I remember the only good part about being sick: your cool hand on my forehead as I knelt in front of the toilet bowl, retching up dinner. The comfort of being held. A cool washcloth. Clean sheets, a night breeze through the window, peace.
I remember a bedroom done over, just for me,
I remember a bright pink corduroy jumper that you sewed on the green Singer, and a shirt with daisies growing up the front, and playing dress up in your filmy blue nightgown and pearls, tottering down the driveway in your shoes, feeling like a princess in your grown-up things.
I remember Easter baskets and Easter dresses and your hand on my knee in church. The ting-a-ling on Christmas Eve, the tiny bronze angels pinging against the hot chimes as you read the story of Jesus’s birth from the book of Matthew. I remember watching you stuff turkey after turkey after turkey, a lifetime’s worth of turkeys roasted and holiday meals served and cleaned up after. I remember the kitchen table set with plates and silverware and folded napkins, every single night of our lives.
I remember finding your most precious books in a chest in Grammie Stanchfield’s attic, studying your careful, girlish penmanship, absorbing the shock of your maiden name inscribed all those years ago on the faded inside cover of “Black Beauty.” I remember being stunned by the realization of your childhood, the fact that you had once been a little girl yourself, and that you had had a whole, complete life before me.
I remember summer evenings, you reading out loud as we sprawled on John’s bed, scratching at mosquito bites and patches of poison ivy. The Family Finds Out, The Borrowers, Misty of Chincoteague. I remember wishing the books would never end, that you wouldn’t turn out the light, that the day didn’t have to be over so soon.
I remember that you always called your mother on the day of the first snowfall of winter. I remember the day you lost her.
I remember when you allowed me to buy “Magical Mystery Tour” and bring my phonograph outside on the back deck and play The Beatles really loud. I remember being in the back seat of our red Plymouth Fury as you drove along, eyes on the road, and explained to me about sex. And I remember being disappointed that it sounded so weird and unfun. I remember, cringing a bit even now, the first bra you bought me and how embarrassed I was — by the color (red!!), the name (“Little Me”), the prospect of wearing it, the very possibility of breasts.
I remember countless long walks in the woods and one picnic lunch on the stoop of an abandoned house, and an early morning breakfast we carried up into the low, embracing branches of a special tree. I remember admitting to my best friend at school that you were my best friend.
I remember how good you looked on a horse. Back tall and straight, hands quiet, heels down. I remember how nervous you were about riding and that you did it anyway. I remember the day you flew a plane by yourself — and I remember thinking, “I will never do that.”
I remember confiding in you ahead of time that I was going to sleep with my boyfriend, and then realizing that you might have preferred not to know. I remember wanting to tell you all about it the next day and forcing myself, for your sake, to keep quiet.
I remember going out to lunch, just you and me, the day before I left for college, at a long-gone place called The Avocado, and ordering a drink, and feeling sadness and excitement all mixed up together, already missing you on the one hand and, on the other, just itching to be gone.
I remember that you filled a house with hearts and flowers on Valentines Day, when you thought my lukewarm romance needed a little push, and that I was mortified and touched and then had to give you credit. (Would I be married today, if not for those ridiculous cut-out cupids and candy hearts and strategically placed love poems?)
I remember the two of us, eating lobster and drinking wine, two nights before my wedding, and how much fun we had picking flowers and making bouquets for every single guest room. I remember a moment just before the ceremony, when we stood in the bedroom in the house in Maine, and said something that felt like a good-bye and a hello at the same time. I remember your funny, relieved curtsey in the kitchen on the morning after, when every wedding task was done, and I was finally married to the right man, and you could relax at last.
I remember when Henry was born, how you somehow managed — despite your dread of city driving, despite not having any idea where the hospital was — to get there anyway, to be right at my side when I became a mother myself. I remember how completely, utterly glad I was to see you.
And I remember the night, three years later, when my water broke and I told you not to hurry, there was plenty of time. I remember that you ignored me and jumped in your car and came anyway — just in time, of course, for Steve to rush me to the hospital.
I remember all the ways you have loved and cared for my children these last twenty-four years, how gracefully and joyfully you became a grandmother. How much I’ve needed you to help me through the hard days of motherhood. And how, when there is something wonderful to report, you are always the first person I need to tell.
I remember — and I know this still — that you have always believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself. We have believed in each another, taken care of one another’s hearts, and shared one another’s joys and sorrows for more than half a century. On this Mothers’ Day, I rejoice in our good fortune, the blessing of each other and of our lives as mother and daughter.
Thank you Mom! xoxoxo K
Today, I wish for myself, for all mothers, the simple gifts of love and gratitude. May we remember that in living our own lives well, we offer our children the gift of good lives, too. Happy Mothers’ Day!
And here, for all of you moms, a favorite page from one of my favorite “mothering” books:
From The Parent’s Tao te Ching by William Martin
Words of Life
You can speak to your children of life,
but your words are not life itself.
You can show them what you see,
but your showing and their seeing
are forever different things.
You cannot speak to them of Divinity itself.
But you can share with them
the millions of manifestations of this Reality
arrayed before them every moment.
Since these manifestations have their origin
in the Tao,
the visible will reveal the invisible to them.
Don’t mistake your desire to talk for their
readiness to listen.
Far more important are the wordless truths they
learn from you.
If you take delight in the ordinary wonders of life,
they will feel the depth of your pleasure
and learn to experience joy.
If you walk with them in the darkness of life’s mysteries,
you will open the gate of understanding.
They will learn to see in the darkness
and not be afraid.
Go for a slow and mindful walk.
Show them every little thing that catches your eye.
Notice every little thing that catches theirs.
Don’t look for great lessons or seek to teach great things.
The lesson will teach itself.
(I first published the above letter to my mom on Mother’s Day 2011. It still holds true!)