Just Another Mother's Day
There are about 8 year's worth of good memories of my mother. In the soft, warm glow of the lamp on my nightstand, she'd sit on the edge of my bed and brush my hair.
"One, two, three" she'd count, all the way to one hundred. "One hundred brushes a night, Jennifer." She told me it would make my hair soft and shiny.
She'd curl up in bed with me, sometimes. She'd read books using funny voices and there were nights she'd read a dozen of them. Sometimes I'd fall asleep to the sound of her reciting the words of Maurice Sendak or Shel Silverstein or Beverly Cleary.
She would give me her leftover teaching supplies so I could play school. I'd create small, uniform rows of dolls and stuffed animals and I'd stand in front of my "class", going over the alphabet and counting by fives.
All of that changed, though, when she left us. Left me, my brother and my dad. She left us to be with a man, and sometimes when I play the game "What If" I wonder what life might have been like if she'd just disappeared with him, driven off into the sunset with her new beau. My dad did his best with two young kids, making dinners and getting us ready for school in the morning. We were sad, but we were okay. We were safe.
And then she came back for us. According to relatives, my dad fought, and fought hard, for custody. But this was the 70's, and unless mom was a derelict or in a mental institution, dads rarely got the kids. I wonder why she wanted us? Was it a final fuck you to my dad? Some sort of maternal urge she couldn't stifle?
Whatever it was, she won. My brother and I were packed up and moved into the tiny two bedroom apartment with my mom, and the man I soon discovered was a monster.
It wasn't long after that when the same woman who used to brush my hair and read to me stood by, silent, while her new husband beat me up. While he screamed at me, spit flying, fists clenched, she was there. Watching. Smoking a cigarette. Sometimes she'd shame him into apologizing afterwards. Other times, she'd tell me how I'd asked for it. She'd scold: "You shouldn't roll your eyes at him, Jennifer."
Mother's Day meant nothing back then, and it didn't until I got married and became a mom myself. Back then, we'd buy hanging baskets of geraniums and shuttle the kids to all of the grandmother's houses. We'd drop off flowers and cards and have the kids tell their grandmas, "Happy Mother's Day!" My own mother's house was part of the circuit, I'd done a fabulous job of blocking out the shit storm that had been my childhood. I'd watch as my own little babies would lean into her for a hug, watch her put her omnipresent cigarette down and, in her stained housecoat, receive the little arms that reached out towards her. The monster was always there. Always, always there. Standing off to the side, making small talk with my then husband. The absurdity of the situation went wholly unnoticed by everyone. Except me.
I had let my husband and children know, from the start, that I had no expectations for Mother's Day. A hug, a kiss, maybe a card they'd made. The fact that someone had picked a day in May and deemed it to be the one day we all celebrated our mothers didn't seem like a big deal to me. It was a way for restaurants and flower shops and the good folks at Hallmark to make a buck out of obligation and guilt. No thanks, I decided. Count me out.
After the divorce, there was exactly one Mother's Day when my now-ex-husband took the kids shopping. The kids later told me that he'd taken them to Target, pointed them in the direction of a clearance end-cap and instructed them to "pick something out for your mom. Make sure it's less than $20.00." They came home with two framed prints of cherry blossom trees. Done in black and pink. They were hideous, but I hung on to them for many years because they were, in essence, from my children.
From then on, the good teachers my children were lucky to have took care of Mother's Day presents. Little hand painted terra cotta pots with sprigs of Swedish Ivy, poems about mommies decorated with tiny handprints, tissue paper flowers. I loved all of these things, and saved a few of them.
Once they were out of elementary school, however, the teacher-guided, handmade presents ended. My kids always made sure to mention the day, always wished me a happy one. There were breakfasts in bed, attempts at best behaviors and all-around sweetness, adolescent-style.
We'd still visit my mom, although as both of us aged, it became harder to force the affection. I'd clench up as we pulled into the driveway, and my smiles were small and perfunctory as we walked through the threshold and into the cluttered, stinky house. Memories smothered me, and seeing my kids all tall and gangly and awkward just like I had been, within arm's reach of The Monster...it filled me with an unnamed dread.
The recovery time from these visits became longer and tougher. A few years ago, the nightmares started coming back, and the very sound of his voice would trigger black moods in me. I began letting her calls go to voicemail, and sometimes it would take me a day or two to finally listen to the message.
Always the same. The television droning on in the background. Her heavy breathing, then asking me in that Harvey Fierstein voice "Can you get me a few packs of cigarettes, Jennifer?" And ever so faintly, under the combined din of the voices on the t.v. and her wheezing, there'd be his voice. I could hear it, and it scared me even though I was sitting in my own living room and it was simply a recording.
"WHO ARE YOU CALLING NOW??" The voice would get closer and I'd hear my mom fumbling with the phone. "GODDAMMIT, WHO NOW?!" And then nothing.
Mother's Day fills me with many feelings, none of which they make cards for: overwhelming guilt. Sadness. Regret. And always, the wondering about how it could have been. How it should have been.
For a long time, I felt shame about my reaction to this day. I'd hide my real feelings, gloss over the pain and put on a happy face when that Sunday in May rolled around. My kids, who are all old enough to make their own gestures, treat me well. They tell me they love me, they call. They buy me lunch and small gifts.
And they always put up with my annual plea to do nothing. They listen, quietly, to my diatribe about how I am lucky to have so many Mother's Days throughout the year.
I am, you know that? I am so lucky. I had no idea how to be a mother to children past the age of eight, and somehow I have kids who like me, who aren't afraid of me. Kids who write moving, beautiful tributes to me in classes, kids who tell me their friends love coming over because "you're nice to them", kids who will go to The Avengers movies with me. Even a 21 year old kid who wants to move back home "for a couple of months" because he knows this is a soft place to land.
Despite all of that, I still can't stand this day. I look at my phone and I count down the hours until it's almost too late to call her. I can picture her, cigarette in hand, looking at her own phone, waiting for it to ring. I can see him, poking his head in the door of her room, making a comment about me and my ungratefulness.
I breathe in. Breathe out. I'll call her, and over the sound of the local newsmen yammering in the background I will wish her a Happy Mother's Day. I'll hear her breathing. I'll shut my eyes, tight against the threatening tears, as I fight to not see her sitting on the edge of my bed, brushing my hair.
"One, two, three..."
Posted by the_happy_hausfrau at 1:49 PM