Monday, May 6, 2013

The Weird Thing About Mother's Day

The Weird Thing About Mother’s Day

For most of the life that I shared with my mother (that would be from my birth until eight years ago, when she died), Mom made fun of Mother’s Day.  Or at least was cynical about it. 

--Mother’s Day:  a trumped up ‘holiday’ first promoted by Philadelphia merchants and continually pushed by the greeting card industry. 
--Mother’s Day: a ‘holiday’ passed into official national status as a feel-good, cost-nothing (to the government, anyway) measure right before World War I. 
--Mother’s Day:  an occasion for children to get their aesthetically challenged creations praised by a parent.  (To be fair, this is an adult-me surmise not based on anything Mom ever said but on the fact that, despite having daughters who were relatively talented artistically, she was not one to stick random scribbles on refrigerators or ugly child-made ornaments on Christmas trees.)

In other words, when I was a child, we never celebrated Mother’s Day.  My sister and I may have dragged home a card or another clumsy craft we made in school, but I can’t recall ever giving such lame efforts to my mom.  In fact, I remember dumping some of them in the trash.  We didn’t have a special dinner, engineered by my dad.  And God forbid that Daddy would get her anything.  I think that happened once, and the result was a high-snifferoony “What are you thinking?  I’m not your mother.”

Same thing with Father’s Day.  Perhaps it was Mom’s attitude toward these commercial holidays, or perhaps it was Dad’s independent judgment.  In any event, we didn’t celebrate Father’s Day either.

This is not to imply that I grew up in a joyless, ultra-rational household.  Far from it.  We celebrated ‘real’ holidays to the max:  birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, May Day.  Even April Fool’s Day:  my mother would pack my lunch box with oddities – either with icky surprises (mayonnaise and pickle sandwiches, both ingredients that I loathed) or with unexpected treats (a candy bar, a frosting-drenched cupcake) – and a somewhat enigmatic note reading:  ‘April Fool’s.  I love you!’

 Really, it wasn’t that enigmatic.  I never doubted my parents’ unconditional love, and I hope my sister didn’t either.  Mom and Dad, for the most part, filled our home with happiness and acceptance – but not acceptance of second-rate efforts that fell far short of what they, and we, knew we could accomplish.  And not acceptance of rote gestures that meant little or nothing.   I suspect that my brilliant, critical, artistic, and frustrated maternal grandmother might have something to do with all this (and with my mother’s tendency, at least as a younger woman, to guard her emotions), but that’s another matter.

Even when my sister and I were grown, with children of our own and living far from our parents, we continued the ban on Mother’s Day (at least with our mother – I like to think that we welcomed our own kids’ school-inspired offerings with more enthusiasm).  But then a weird change started to happen.  Maybe in response to our own enjoyment of our children’s Mother’s Day efforts, we started at least calling Mom on Mother’s Day (this was back when long-distance calls were still a semi-big deal).  And Dad on Father’s Day.  Our parents seemed to like these fake-holiday-inspired calls, much to our initial surprise. 

So the Mother’s and Father’s Day boycott crumbled.  My parents retired and moved closer to my sister and very close to me.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day became occasions to make a nice dinner for them, or take them out, or for a visit from my sister.  My parents got older, and more feeble.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day soon included little presents as well as get-togethers.

In their last years, our parents accepted my sister’s and my attempts to celebrate what had once been ridiculed holidays with an almost heartbreaking gratitude.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – marked by cards, gifts, dinners – had now become signifiers of family solidarity and affection. 

The weird thing about these manufactured holidays is that their meanings change profoundly over time, for children as well as for parents.  After our parents die, we still define ourselves as their children and think of our being-on-earth as, in part, measured by how well we have loved them . . . thoughts that can come to the forefront on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  If this happens, we are the lucky ones:  we’ve been blessed with families on whom we’ve relied, from whom we’ve drawn emotional sustenance, and whom we miss dearly because they were so very, very important to us.

My point today is simple:  even if it’s a commercially driven event like Mother’s Day, make the effort to let your parents know you care about them, and that they are truly important to you.  If needed, you can acknowledge a family history of downplaying artificial occasions (“Remember when we all laughed about how Aunt Alice would go on and on about the Mother’s Day card she received from her son, whom she hasn’t seen in years?”) and still do something to make your parents feel cherished.  And feel that they accomplished an important task: raising thoughtful, loving children who will be their most lasting, maybe their only, legacy.

The older our parents get, the more important such beliefs, reified by the small ceremonies surrounding Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, are to them.  And, with somewhat different valences, to us – as our time together, as parents and children, is growing inescapably shorter with every holiday. 

And then it’s gone.