Near my mother’s grave, Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Winchester, VA.
“I remember my mother’s prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
“The tie which links mother and child is of such pure and immaculate strength as to be never violated. ~Washington Irving
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. As the day looms closer, I’ve been scanning all the Facebook posts, pictures, videos and articles about mothers that flood the online space. I dutifully click ‘Like’ on those my friends post, and then move on, trying not to think too hard about the coming day and the reminder of the absence of my own mother. But a story in the New Yorker stuck with me.
The author, Ruth Margalit, whose mother died three and a half years ago, struggles as well with all the Mother’s day media hype. Here’s her take on it. “CALL MOM” said a sign the other day, and something inside me clenched. In my inbox at work, an email waited from the New York Times: a limited offer to “treat Mom” to a free gift. It’s nothing, I tell myself. A day for advertisers. So I shrug off the sales and the offers, the cards and the flowers. I press delete. Still, I now mark Mother’s Day on my private calendar of grief.”
For many, Mother’s Day is a day of celebration, a day to express gratitude and joy for the contributions of the most singular woman in your life. It’s a day to spend making your mom feel appreciated and special. But for those of us who have lost our mothers, it is also a day of grief on our private calendar. What should we call ourselves? Are we now “motherless”? Margalit prefers the term “un-mothered.” Here’s how she describes the difference: “Meghan O’Rourke has a wonderful word for the club of those without mothers. She calls us not motherless but unmothered. It feels right—an ontological word rather than a descriptive one. I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.”
My Mom died four years ago this April. Mother’s Day is definitely a bittersweet holiday for me. I look forward to it, because my wonderful boys will make me feel like a queen for the day. They will be HERE, with me, where I can see their faces and hug and kiss them. There will be flowers and cards, and a marvelous dinner together, and laughter and stories of their childhood. But I also know I will be somewhat melancholy as I think about my mom. I will think about how I miss her, what I wish I had said to her, what I wish I could say to her now.
As the hours pass in the countdown to Mother’s Day, I have been thinking a lot about those terms, and whether I feel “motherless” or even “un-mothered”. Something just bothered me about both of those words. Yes, I am today definitely without a mother who is here on earth. So in a technical sense, I am “motherless.”
What does it really mean to be “un-mothered”? Again, in technical terms, I guess it fits, because I am no longer actively “mothered” by anyone. I no longer talk to my mother on a weekly basis as I used to; there are no more talks where she gives me advice about my health or eating habits, or about how to handle the boys, or shares gossip of our hometown or jokes she heard on the golf course. But I hear her voice mothering me all the same. Let me explain.
Even today, I can see her roll her eyes and laugh at Ben’s current long hippy hair. I can see her take him in her arms for a big hug, while tugging at those locks and telling him to GET A HAIRCUT. I can see her smile with pride as Jake describes his progress in school and tells her about his upcoming summer job as a research assistant. I can hear her conversation with my brother, her most beloved son, as they discuss Tiger Wood’s absence from the 2014 Masters. I can hear her tell him to stop working so much, and to get more exercise. I can hear her telling us how she worries about our father, and how we must promise to take care of him after she is gone. I can hear her ask Mary and Jen about their love life, providing her opinion on their choices and gently prodding them for their plans. I can see her holding beautiful baby Jack, while he squirms to be released, kissing him over and over, while giving unsolicited parental advice to his mom, her granddaughter Rachel. I can see her behind Jack, teaching him learn to hit a golf ball with the small clubs she bought for us when we were little. I can see her taking him for a ride in a golf cart. I can SEE them together, a grandmother’s pride shining from her face, as she introduces him to all her friends.
Although it has been four years since she died, I can hear and see her in my mind, doing and saying all these things. I know exactly what she would love, what she would find pleasing or funny, and I know exactly what she would hate. I know what she would laugh at, and I know what she would most likely find infuriating. I feel her mothering me from beyond the grave almost every day – mothering not only me, but my brother, my boys, her granddaughters and her great grandson.
When I have a tough decision or choice to make, I hear her whispering her advice to me. I know exactly where she would come down. She was a most opinionated woman, with clear values and views. And I am strangely always comforted by that, even if I choose the other path.
She was a most singular woman, and she left her mark on all of us. We may be without her now, but we were never motherless. And I am most definitely not “un-mothered” now.
Tomorrow, on Mother’s Day, I will be happy and not sad. I will celebrate the gift of her continuing presence in my life; I will be thankful that even today, four years past her death, I still hear her voice in my head and heart. I will be grateful that my boys and my nieces had the blessing of knowing her well for all of their formative years.
And finally, I hope that they too, like me, can still hear her voice, whispering in their ear. For I know without a doubt that she will be telling them something to which they would do well to listen.