Mother’s Day

Every Mother’s Day, I think of a miserably shy little girl sitting in her elementary school classroom, trying to do the day’s assignment unquestioningly. She is about eight years old, and her life already has cowed her into silence. So she goes ahead and does as she has been told, making a Mother’s Day card, even though she doesn’t have a mother anymore.

The little girl was my mother, the year in the mid-1930s. I wouldn’t be born for another quarter century, but the memory seems clear to me as if I had been there and it happened yesterday. It lives on as an event that exemplifies why my mother refuses to celebrate the day that, in our family, almost dare not say its name.

Ew! she will say in her still girl-like voice, hunching her frail old shoulders in a shudder. Promise me you won’t get me anything!

I wonder sometimes if her mother would be turning in her grave at my mother’s determined refusal to move past her loss, to take the day in stride, to celebrate her own accomplishments as a mother, which are many. The pictures of my grandmother, who died at 29, show a serene, thoughtful gaze, and, in group photos, a laughing smile.

A pretty, smart and adored only child, born at the start of the last century, she seems sturdy and capable of taking on whatever might cross her way. She taught and had a degree in botany. She met my grandfather, a recent law school graduate at a dance. They married, and then later, when she was heavily pregnant with my mother they went to Niagara Falls, as if on honeymoon, apparently entertained by the scandalous image they presented. They were young, good-looking, moving up, in the first quarter of the American Century. My mother was born on New Years Day of 1925.

My grandfather became a stockbroker, and my mother remembers a pleasant little yellow house where she began to grow up. My uncle was born around Thanksgiving in 1928, and my grandfather wrote an ebullient letter to his mother back home that holiday season.

The new baby was doing well, he wrote. Prissy (my mother), was getting over a little cold, but generally, the letter indicated, a happy and flourishing little girl. Business, it seemed, also was good: “It looks,” he concluded, “like 1929 is going to be a wonderful year.”

It wasn’t, of course. My  grandmother’s heart had been damaged by a childhood bout with diphtheria, and a few months after the birth of her second child she had a stroke which left her bedridden. She had a little bell to ring for help, and my mother remembers it ringing. My grandfather had a yacht, relatively modest for that boom time —  it sank that year. The stock market crashed. My grandmother made the risky decision to have surgery that might help her to recover better, faster, so she could raise her family again, not have to ring the bell. Before she went into surgery she asked her own mother to tell her baby boy always to keep his promise. Prissy, she said, would remember her. She died on the operating table.

No one told my mother, so she was left to do her grieving, which continues today, alone. First my grandfather packed everyone in the car and drove to California to remake his fortune. He launched a tumultuous second marriage with a woman with a French-sounding name. He bought the formula for the medicine used for aversion therapy for alcoholism. After a dose of it, the drink of your choice would make you violently ill until you didn’t want to drink anymore. He took his own cure several times.

The business, which ran from a Beverly Hills mansion, and was the first alcohol treatment center to employ nurses, was a success for a while. Cowboy star Tom Mix was one of its many famous clients. My grandfather’s marriage was not a success though, and when it ended, he packed up his children to live an aging great aunt and great uncle in Chicago. It is possible that survivors of wars and earthquakes put less weight on those events in their lives, than my mother puts on the two lost years she spent with those two, starting as a six-year-old girl who retreated into herself.

After those two years, my grandfather’s business was going well enough that he could hire his brother-in-law to help run it, and brought his sister’s family out to California from the Midwest. He sent for his own two children to live with them.

His sister, for whatever reasons, whether inspired through genes or jealousy, or the frustrations of being a woman then, had a meaness to her. Several years later, after my grandfather lost a leg in a car crash that killed two people, she and her husband stole his business. For starters though, when my mother arrived a little sculpture bust of her mother, among her few keepsakes, her aunt used it as a doorstop.

Then, that May at school, it was time to make Mother’s Day cards. My mother, well-behaved in the ways that children who feel they don’t belong anywhere can excel at, made her card. Addressed to her aunt, it said, “I love you.”

Do you see what I’m getting at, this Mother’s Day, with this depressing story? Because as I see it that one Mother’s Day was worse than the sound of her mother’s little bell ringing from the sickroom, than listening to the shouting of her father’s fights with her new stepmother, worse, yes, even than the two years with the distant aging relatives. It was the thing, as many more would in the years that followed, that told her that the world had no place for people who were different, who didn’t come with all the standard ingredients.

I try to celebrate how fortunate I am to have a mother at all, through the year. I keep her close. I forget sometimes, because, as you can imagine, someone who has been through everything that she has isn’t always easygoing. She is however one of  the most gentle, supportive, funny, caring, smart mothers in the world. I try to celebrate that on Mother’s Day, by not doing anything special.

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2 Responses

  1. This made me cry a lot. I love it. Your mother is very lucky to have a daughter who understands.

    • Thank you, very much!

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