“Mommy! It’s your happy day!” My four-year old grandson said as he greeted my daughter at the bottom of the stairs in their Okinawan home this Mother’s Day morning. He held out a little box with four cookies inside, ones he had decorated the day before, and offered her one–before sitting down to eat the rest himself! His two-year old sister, not to be outdone, gave her a half-eaten jelly bean. “I love my family,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
In years to come, the jelly beans and cookies will likely be replaced with cards and flowers, like the ones my daughters sent to me, but these first childish gestures of celebrating mothers are often remembered with the greatest fondness. Among my cherished keepsakes, there is a box devoted to the handmade cards and love notes scrawled across the page in my daughters’ childish handwriting. My mother kept a few of those little notes too. Shortly after her death, I found a crude watercolor painting of Mount Shasta tucked in between the pages of one of her books. I’d painted it for her in third grade, writing at the bottom of it, “I will always love you, Mommy.”
And I did, although our relationship was tested as I grew into adulthood and rebelled against what I perceived as her unrelenting and unnecessary control. Many years later, when I navigated the turbulent years of adolescence with my two daughters, I became much more understanding and forgiving of my mother’s unintended misdemeanors. Motherhood is complicated: tender and loving, challenging and at times, frustrating. Even if our feelings about our mothers are sometimes conflicted, like it or not, their voices echo in our minds long after they are gone.
It’s no wonder that mothers have been the inspiration for more than one poet or writer. Type in “mother” in the advanced search on www.poets.org, the site of the Academy of American Poets, and no less than 611 poems are listed. Read works of fiction or memoir, and a full range of mother characters emerge as, for example, in this vivid portrait of Russell Baker’s mother in his 1982 memoir, Growing Up:
In that time when I had known her best, my mother had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run…Life was combat, and victory was not to the lazy, the timid, the slugabed, the drugstore cowboy, the libertine, the mushmouth afraid to tell people exactly what was on his mind whether people liked it or not. She ran.
Anne Sexton remembers her mother with bitterness as she describes her “little childhood cruelties”:
I will speak of the little childhood cruelties…
of the nightly humiliations where Mother undressed me,
of the life of the daytime, locked in my room,
being the unwanted, the mistake
that Mother used to keep Father
from his divorce.
(“Those Times,” The Complete Poems, 1982)
And it’s a mother’s love that Carl Sandburg recalls in “Home:”
Here is a thing my heart wishes the world had more of:
I heard it in the air of one night when I listened
to a mother singing softly to a child restless and angry in the darkness.
(In: Complete Poems, 2003)
Motherhood. The huge task of nurturing and caring for our children, of guiding them through childhood, weathering the inevitable storms of adolescence, and hoping we’ve done right by them. I, like every mother I know, did the best I could, but I learned as I went, and I made my own mistakes along the way. Now, so many years later my heart swells with pride when I watch my daughters with their children. I sometimes see a shadow of myself as a young mother, the tenderness, the questions–“am I doing the right thing?”—and I witness little gestures and actions I learned from my mother, even my grandmother, passed along, consciously or unconsciously, just as they each do now to their children.
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point…
(“What I Learned from My Mother,” by Julia Kasdorf, in Sleeping Preacher, 1992)
“Your kind of love, once given, is never lost…”Wallace Stegner wrote in a letter to his mother over fifty years after her death. (“Letter, Much Too Late,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, 1992) It’s been almost a decade since my mother died, but today, I’m remembering my mother with a fuller kind of gratitude than, perhaps, I did before she died. Maybe it’s time to write the letter, long overdue, I always meant to write before she died…a kind of adult version of that third grade girl’s promise, “I’ll always love you…”
Write about your mother this week. And to mothers everywhere, I wish you each a Happy Mother’s Day.