Mother’s Day is a day the unmothered, abused, or barely mothered among us would like to forget—but it’s hard to do with the world around us chiming in about mothers and flowers and how she’s your best friend. We have to figure what to do, to get a card or not, and manage our way through roses and guilt and anger, through memories good and bad, as usually there is no black and white or clear edges to the story.
For years, as Mother’s Day approached, my stomach had its usual knot of anxiety, my brain running overtime: One voice would say, “You should send a card even though you didn’t live with her.” The other argues, “But she forgot your birthday and Christmas the last two years.” Then, the voice of guilt chimed in: “You should do it—after all, she’s your mother.”
The argument would continue–it was endless actually. “She doesn’t want anyone to know she has a daughter—she doesn’t deserve a card.”
When I was twenty years old, I found out that none of my mother’s circle of friends knew she even had a daughter, but I would court her over the years, saying to myself, “Maybe one day she’ll see me for who I am—a nice person who prefers forgiveness to grudges. She’ll be proud of me for all I’ve done. I am a therapist, a teacher, and the mother of her three grandchildren.”
Each year before Mother’s day, I’d drag myself to the dreaded rack of cards. I’d argue with the mushy ones with pink ribbons that said, “You have always been there for me.”
“No you weren’t, I don’t know how that would feel.”
I would slink through the racks, often leaving with no card at all. If the voice won that urged compassion—or was it guilt—I’d get a card with a cute cat, or a photo of beautiful flowers and write my own neutral note. On the years when I didn’t buy a card, an ache gripped my stomach all day, even though my kids would make me pancakes and scrawl sweet homemade cards with crayons. Underneath the grief, anger always lurked.
We had a tough history to deal with, my mother and me. We were both daughters of mothers who left us behind. Her mother, the grandmother I would grow up with, divorced her first husband in 1920, and left my mother behind as a little girl of six or seven, making her way as a single woman in Chicago. My father left Mother and me before I was one, and for a time Mother, Gram and I lived in Kansas. When I was four, she left me with her mother and went to Chicago to live the life of a single woman, so single that during my first visit to her in Chicago when I was twenty, she explained, “No one knows I’ve been married, so of course I can’t have a daughter.” Mother was embarrassed to have anyone know she was divorced, but she kept her married last name, and called herself “Miss Myers,” which made us both a “Miss Myers.” Very confusing!
After I questioned her about why she had to do this, she insisted, “This is the way it is, and you need to accept it. Now, be quiet.”
When I was growing up with my grandmother, my mother visited once a year, dressed in stylish suits, her hair perfect, a face that always broke my heart with its beauty. She’d descend from the shimmering silver trains that brought her and took her away, touching me softly on the cheek before the spark was lit that would begin another fight with her mother—dish throwing, screaming, tears. Each time she got on the train, I wanted to go with her, to sit beside her and try to keep her from going too far.
For thirty years after mother told me not to call her “mother,” I would try to get her to accept and be proud of me and my three children. I could see it — her arms held out to me, murmuring an apology. I could taste the sweetness of it, so real to me it almost seemed as though it had really happened. If I could just do things right, if I proved I was worthy, if I acted like the dutiful daughter and sent Mother’s Day cards, that magic day would come.
The day of reckoning came in Chicago when my youngest two children were eleven and fourteen—my oldest was at college. Following in the footsteps of Gram and Mother, I was divorced too and struggling to raise the children alone. I longed for her to see how smart my youngest son was, how my daughter was growing into a young lady whose face had begun to mirror ours. Mother had only met my children twice. As she herded us down the back corridors in her hotel apartment, my son said, “This is because she doesn’t want anyone to know that we’re hers.” My daughter rolled her eyes. Later that afternoon when we were alone, he asked me, “Why do you bring us here when she doesn’t want us?”
At that moment, I knew I had to divorce my mother. I decided never to bring the children to see her again. I saw how each rejection stabbed me all year long, how her refusals to acknowledge me deepened a wound I’d always carried. It made us all different, rejectable. I didn’t want the children to know this feeling, but it was too late.
For four years, I kept the promise to myself not to contact her, but when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I felt that I should be with her. Even though I knew she’d deny me, this time I was prepared. And yet when it happened, in front of nurses and doctors, there was comfort in their reaction: shock followed by looks of empathy. For the first time there were witnesses to what I’d carried alone for so long.
Our family had a history of deathbed transformations, so I wondered what would unfold. When I received a call saying she couldn’t speak, it became possible for me to be with her. I knew I couldn’t bear one more rejection. I flew back to Chicago and stepped into her room where I saw a wizened old woman, bald and unrecognizable. When she saw me, she lifted her arms and gave an unearthly cry, a wailing that came from the depths of brokenness. The past swirled around us, all the times I waited for her by the train, the times she played the piano for me. Now I could see how abandoned and lost she was, unable to give the love she never had. I gathered her in my arms, both of us sobbing. For the first time, my mother received me.
Her death released me from the endless longing for her. For years, I’d felt like I hadn’t had a mother even though she was alive. Now, I was like everyone else—I had a mother who had died.
In my dreams after her death, we finally ride the train. This passage is from the first page of my memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother:
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, sitting in the last car, watching the landscape move backward, as if erasing my childhood, all those times when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you?
Even as she is with me, she is gone.