My mother loved greeting cards. One was never enough. She gave multiple cards on birthdays and anniversaries and she expected nothing less when Mother’s Day came around. I remember shopping in bookstores and Hallmark shops, trying to find a couple funny ones, a serious one, and always a large one. Size of card mattered to my mother. I think she equated it with effort.
My siblings and I thought it all a bit much, every year, this stack of colorful envelopes laid at the altar of my mother’s suggestion. But then that Sunday in May arrived, and over a brunch table she would open all of those cards, one by one, and read them out loud.
She read them like story hour at a local library. She took her time. She offered comments like, “That’s true” or “Oh, that’s precious.” Then she flipped each card open and showed everyone the illustrations. We’d have to pass it around as she dug into the next one.
I never understood why greeting cards meant so much to my mother. Until one time I was visiting her apartment, a good month after Mother’s Day, and I saw them all displayed on the kitchen counter, each one opened and signed by her kids. And I finally realized the significance.
They kept her company while we were gone.
When we said ‘best mom,’ we meant it
This year marks the seventh Mother’s Day since she died. Seven years since we stacked her greeting cards. It’s such a strange thing, the erasure of a holiday. Ever since I can remember, Mother’s Day was sacred, reserved, circled on the calendar. Nobody traveled. Nobody left the house. Even as adults, living far away, we were expected to make an effort to get home.
I don’t know the true history of Mother’s Day. I don’t know who invented it. But I know my mother owned it. She had given every ounce of herself to her children, and when we signed our cards, “To the best Mother ever,” she smiled and knew we meant it.
The first year without her, we marked the occasion sadly. We spoke about her and how she loved the fuss. The next year a little less. The next year even less. We began to celebrate with other relatives and friends. In time, we switched focus, and watched the younger people in our lives celebrate their mothers.
The greeting card tradition faded, and with it yet another marker of the woman who raised me.
I think back to the many mistakes I made with my mother. Keeping her at a distance. Not telling her how grateful I was. Forgetting to call no matter how many times she said, “Call me the minute you get home!”
But one thing I did right happened six years before she passed away. I got a video camera, sat her down, and had her tell me the family history. Everybody. Great grandparents. Grandparents. Uncles. Aunts. Cousins. It was, at points, enlightening, hysterical and tragic. I learned countries and names, feuds and secrets, who was loved and who was scorned.
My father was sitting nearby, and he would occasionally interject a memory. And then they’d haggle. And then they’d disagree. And then my mom would say, “Ah, Sonny (my Dad’s nickname), you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
And we’d get back to the cousins.
Ask her. She’d love to tell you.
Today, if you have the time, and you’re lucky enough to have your mother in your life, I wholeheartedly suggest you try this. Get her to go through the entire tree, from top branch to bottom. Mothers are often the ones who retain the family history anyhow. And as I once wrote in a book, “behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.”
I don’t buy greeting cards for this holiday anymore. It’s another thing death steals from you. Even traditions you once thought silly are taken when your mother goes and you never get them back.
But I do watch that video. I have it on my desktop. I listen to my mother’s excellent elocution, the slight Brooklyn accent, the laughter that certain memories brought, like when she told her brother, my Uncle Mike, that if I was born on his birthday, he could name me, provided it began with an M to honor their deceased father. The day came. Sure enough, around 7 p.m., I emerged. And my uncle announced that my name would forever be … Marmaduke.
And my mother rescinded the offer.
I look at that video. I remember those greeting cards. And I realize I have quietly adopted my mother’s tradition, keeping something on my counter to retain our connection. The ways we become our parents. They never stop.
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