I’ve spent the past week in Toronto, bending my body and my mind toward Flora’s, my ten month old granddaughter, delighting in her daily explorations of an increasingly larger world, one that offers her unlimited possibilities for discovery and learning. We play with puppets and blocks, crawl on the floor together—she moves much more quickly than her older grandmother—and while she bounces and claps, I call up my ancient repertoire of nursery rhymes and Sesame Street tunes, the same ones I sang to her mother forty years ago.
Her mother. My eldest daughter. The daughter who surprised me with the intensity of her desire to have children. “It’s all I ever wanted,” she said as we pushed Flora along the tree-lined streets in the Annex, the neighborhood where they now live. This is a contrast to the life Elinor had for two years before Flora’s birth, living and working in Beirut, Lebanon and traveling all over the Mid-East and Europe. While Flora’s world expands, her mother’s has shrunk to fit her daughter’s needs, and yet, it seems surprisingly natural to see my daughter as a mother.
Sunday will be Elinor’s first Mother’s Day celebration, and she’ll celebrate it with me, her mother-in-law, her daughter and husband. We’re all being treated to a lavish brunch—by her husband– and the hotel dining room will be crowded with other families similarly honoring their mothers and grandmothers. While Mother’s Day often seems too commercialized for my liking, its roots are much deeper than the Hallmark card sentiments, going back to the period after the Civil War and the efforts of Ann Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker, who initiated “Mothers’ Work Days” in an effort to help improve sanitation. In 1912, President Woodrow Wilson declared a national day to honor mothers, but specifically for those whose sons had died in the war.
I watch my daughter now, her days wholly devoted to Flora’s well-being and development, and I remember what it was like for me to be her mother—the worry, joy, frustrations, laughter or the turmoil of adolescence. Motherhood is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and yet I could not imagine my life without my daughters. But I became much more empathetic and forgiving of my mother as I navigated the challenges of motherhood.
We will be three mothers celebrating Mother’s Day together this year: Flora’s mother and her grandmothers. No doubt we’ll all tell stories. Nana will describe Flora’s father as a toddler; I’ll tell of Elinor’s youthful antics; the young parents will likely share some humorous recollections of their mothers– stories that will be re-told many times as Flora learns about her extended family.
Mothers or motherhood are rich subjects for writing. Why not mine your memories of a mother, grandmother or another person who has “mothered” you in an important way? Your recollections may be amusing, tender, or complex. What qualities or anecdotes best describe your mother? How can you bring a mother to life on the page? Here are some ideas.
- Begin with a line from a poem. A good way to get started is to borrow a line from a poem about a mother, for example:
“Mama, I always see you there… “(Sharon Olds)
“I learned from my mother how to…” (Julia Kasdorf)
“Grandma, come back, I forgot…” (Carolyn Forché)
“Were it not for the way you taught me to look at the world…” Ted Kooser
“The older I get, the more I see/the power of that young woman, my mother” (Sharon Olds)
“O mother, what have I forgotten?” (Alan Ginsberg)
- A Mother’s Advice: Write about the advice you were given by a mother or grandmother. In the essay, “Advice from My Grandmother,” Alice Hoffman creates an unmistakable portrait of her grandmother, Lillie Lutkin.
Cook badly. Even if you’re already a bad cook, make it worse. Trust me, it’s easy. Throw in anything you want. Too much salt, too much pepper. Feed him and see what he says. A complaint means he’s thinking about himself, and always will. A compliment means he’ll never make a living. But a man who says, “Let’s go to a restaurant,” now he’s a real man. Order expensive and see what he’s got to say then.
(In Family: American Writers Remember Their Own, 1996).
- Write an unsent letter that expresses all you feel—loving and/or conflicted: Wallace Stegner, in “Letter, Much Too Late,” wrote to his dead mother:
In three months I will be eighty years old, thirty years older than you were when you died…
… as I sit here at the desk, trying to tell you something fifty-five years too late, I have a clear mental image of your pursed lips and your crinkling eyes, and I know that nothing I can say will persuade you that I was ever less than you though me. Your kind of love, once given, is never lost…When I have been less than myself, you make me ashamed even as you forgive me. You’re a good . . . boy . . . Wallace…
(From: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, 1992)
As we honor our mothers this Sunday, let mothers be your inspiration for writing. To every mother who reads this post, Happy Mother’s Day.