On Mother’s Day, when Ethan was five, he gave me a hand-drawn card and a peanut butter cup from his Halloween stash, having sat me down on the couch to make a formal presentation of his gift.
“Do you like it? Really?” he asked excitedly.
On the front of the card, a stick-figure mom pushed her smiling stick-figure son on a park swing.
“I love it,” I told Ethan, pulling him onto my lap. The back of his neck smelled like warm apple juice.
“That’s you and that’s me,” he said, pointing. “After the swings we’re going to get ice cream.”
That morning I’d woken up on the verge of tears, realizing this would be my first Mother’s Day without my mother. My clock radio had turned itself on and the DJ kept mentioning the day.
“Damn Hallmark holiday,” I grumbled as I got out of bed, just as I had on certain Valentine’s Days when my love life seemed like it would always be desert blank.
But here Ethan was, reminding me with a homemade card and a squashed piece of candy that this holiday was still mine to celebrate. I pulled him closer. “You made my day,” I whispered into his sweat-damp hair.
I’m writing this on my sixth motherless Mother’s Day. Like that first one, the others have proven to be a mix of small sweet joys with Ethan and brief moments of sorrow about my mother. But the real stinging feelings of loss don’t usually hit me on landmark days such as these. Rather, they tend to catch me off guard when I come upon something I want to share with her.
I was the same way after my divorce. When Richard moved out, I expected to feel sad on his birthday and on our anniversary. And I did. A little. But we’d had our share of disappointing celebrations on those days, so the real punched-in-the-gut grief came with the first snowfall. Richard loves snow. The moment he glimpses a single flake out the window, he’s buoyant. His cheeks grow flushed before he even gets outside. On that particular snowy day the winter after he left, I caught myself about to call to him, “Come see!”
And even now, when I read a book I think my mother would like, I sometimes find myself making a mental note to tell her about it. My mother was what she herself would call a real people person. Everyone she met confided in her. A man behind her in line at the grocery store would tell her of his son’s drinking problem. A young waitress would slip into her booth at a coffee shop and share her sadness about a recent miscarriage. She was a good listener and a terrible gossip. She loved human drama.
An avid reader, her favorite books were naturally biographies and memoirs. She read about artists, writers, royalty, and rock stars. At the breakfast table, when I was growing up, she was as likely to describe Janis Joplin’s sexual predilections as May Sarton’s love of cats.
A love of reading is one of the greatest gifts a parent can pass along to a child. This is especially true for kids with physical disabilities. It gives us the important message that life is not all about the body. There is a rich world out there we can travel in, no matter what our limitations may be. Of course I didn’t think about all that as a teenager, but I did appreciate being able to find a good book about Mick Jagger on my mother’s bookshelf.
As much as she loved biographies, my mother also had wonderful taste in fiction. Thanks to her, I discovered Cold Sassy Tree and The Women’s Room, and the novels of Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Berg.
She was very proud of the fact that I became a writer. When I published my first poem in a literary magazine, she xeroxed the page and carried it around in her purse. In doctors’ waiting rooms and at bus stops, she’d take it out to show to strangers as though it was a photo of her grandchild. It hurts me to think of this now, but I actually stopped giving her copies of the journals my work appeared in because this embarrassed me so much.
Nonetheless, literature remained a bonding place for us. We often discussed what we were reading and passed books back and forth. I can still hear the pride in her voice as she mentioned to a woman on a train who was reading Tuesdays with Morrie, “I was just telling my daughter how good that book is!”
During one of my mother’s visits when Ethan was a baby, she came into his room while I was putting him down for a nap.
“I’m mad at you,” she said.
“What’d I do?”
She held up a small paperback. “How could you not tell me about this book? I would love this book!”
It was Roommates by Max Apple, a memoir about the author’s relationship with his grandfather whom he’d lived with while in graduate school. It was wonderfully written, tender, and funny. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to pass it on to her, except that, at the time, I did most of my reading while breastfeeding, and I’m convinced a good deal of gray matter leaked out with the milk.
One reason my mother has been on my mind so much of late is that, in the last year or so, all the books I’ve read have been memoirs. I find I want to read people’s real stories, in their own voices. And, as a result, I’ve read a lot of books I wish I could tell my mother about. After reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett I cried, not just because the story was heartbreaking, but because my mother would have loved it.
Recently, it occurred to me that since I’ve been writing this column for Literary Mama, as well as other personal essays, I’ve become my mother’s favorite kind of writer. It’s a bittersweet realization. It pains me that she isn’t here to share in it, but I like knowing that the candor with which I write about my life would please her.
Maybe heaven is a place where loved ones can, on occasion, read over our shoulders. This one’s for you, Mom. I plan to keep writing. And I’ll keep reading on your behalf, as well as my own.