Mother’s Day is here again, which is great for most people whose mothers are still alive. But for those of us who have lost our mothers, this holiday presents an onslaught of media messages urging us to reach out to someone who we can no longer touch.
“I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of Mother's Day displays in stores, radio commercials and especially those pull-at-the-heart strings attempts to convince people to buy flowers, cell phones, and clap-on lighting devices,” said Rebecca Soffer, an independent producer and writer in New York whose mother died in a car accident in 2006.
Bex Schwartz, a New York-based creative director who lost her mother "relatively suddenly" in April 2010, spends the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day in what she describes as “a state of fury. That first year, all the omnipresent Mother's Day shit made me sad. But now every time I see an ad or get an email telling me to shower my mother with love (and gifts) I just get angry.”
"When you don't have a mother, suddenly it seems like the entire world does." remembers Soffer. That first year, she joined a friend's family for brunch, but "as lovely as they all were, all I could think of was how uncomfortable, and even angry, I felt among them."
Time makes the pain different in its depth or sharpness, but doesn’t erase it. “I am tired of people telling me that, now that I have a daughter, Mother's Day will no longer be sad for me,” said Shannon Sarna Goldberg, NYC-based food-writer and blogger who gave birth to her daughter Ella last year. “True, this is the first Mother's Day in 15 years where I feel like I have something to do other than be annoyed and sad and generally brooding. But to say that the presence of a child (or any additional relationship) will negate the loss of one's mother shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be motherless, and a lack of recognition of the sanctity about what our moms mean to each us.”
The first few years are predictably rocky, as the shift happens from omnipresent-but-innocuous Hallmark holiday and excuse for family gatherings to a wrenching reminder of what has been lost. “I was in too much pain; it was easier to try to shut down the meaning of Mother's Day because I was an only child and my father was in too much pain to ask me to remember her with him,” Soffer remembers. “I ended up talking a long walk along the Hudson at the end of the day, far away from restaurants, Duane Reade card displays, and, most importantly, families.” But after a few years, she missed acknowledging a day with so many memories attached. “I decided to try out ways to feel connected with my mother instead of expending so much energy ignoring her.”
In trying to cope with Mother's Day, the challenge is to synthesize our losses within the construct of larger society, while this day-with-capital-D goes on around us, punctuating our landscape with signs of celebratory sales and elaborate floral arrangements. So we search out ways to remember.
“I have found that there is a shroud of discomfort around the departed, when in fact they're still very much metaphorically alive and in our midst,” observes Adeena Sussman, a food writer, recipe developer and chef. “Just saying her name and talking about her, things she did, funny things she said, makes me really happy instead of weighing down the day.” The date of Sussman’s mother’s funeral in 2006 would also have been her mother’s 62nd birthday; every year, instead of “sitting around moping, I hold a raucous cocktail party. I host all my friends and family at my house, serve her favorite foods and mix her favorite drinks: Tom Collinses and Manhattans.”
Sussman also finds another way to remember her mother, who “loved nothing more than feeding others”: holding a bake sale to support new ovarian cancer support groups provided by Sharsheret, a cancer support community based in Teaneck, NJ. “What started as an on-the-fly bake sale that my sister, Sharon, and I pulled off in 2 days in 2009 has morphed into a multi-city bake sale, Pies for Prevention, that sells Thanksgiving desserts to support Sharsheret. We have a blast baking together for days on end, using our Cuisinart mixers just like mom used to.”
Melanie Notkin, the entrepreneur/founder behind lifestyle brand SavvyAuntie.com, remembers when she was four years old, putting on her big rubber boots, as her mother supervised. “I can’t wait to turn five!” she exclaimed, proud of her achievement. And her mother responded – “rather disappointingly to me then, ‘Don’t wish your life away.’” Notkin’s mother had been seriously ill a few years earlier, and had emerged from that illness. Although her mother passed away about 18 years later – a number symbolizing life in the Jewish tradition – Notkin’s mother’s lesson has “carried me through every struggle in my life since, enabling me to put on those shoes and go on with my day, no matter how dark that day or no matter how much I wanted another day I'd been wishing for to finally come," she recalls.
"I am not where I expected to be at 44, still single, not a mother myself," Notkin reflected. "But on Mother’s Day, I will honor her, now 24 years gone, by appreciating the second life God gave her and the life she gave me by remembering to live my life fully as it is - not how I wished it would have been. My mother enabled my independence, which enabled her to mother me even after she was gone. Her lesson made me appreciate my role as my nephew’s and nieces’ Auntie Melanie, a gift I am grateful for every single day, not one of which I ever wish away.”
As for me? My mother, who died in May 2011, is still a daily presence and a figure in my life; she's just a little noncorporeal right now. So to remember her, I remind my friends to call their mothers. I’ll call or message my sisters-in-law, maybe talk to my nieces and nephews, and if that doesn’t feel like enough, I have any number of friends and relatives, with and without kids, who could benefit from a wish of goodwill, Mother’s Day-related or otherwise. I’ll light a yahrzeit candle (and then again for Shavuot) because the light reminds me simultaneously of my mother’s absence and altered, but still real, presence. I cleaned my closet, which my mother would certainly have considered a Mother's Day present. I wear her jewelry, which always gets comments from people, as well as my Neshama Project hamsa, which I got from a friend to mark the end of my first year of mourning. And I’ll write, in memory of my mother the writer, who – even as her typing strength waned - wrote a book that she referred to, in her writing process, as “visiting with my parents.”
Whatever we do to remember – writing, spending time with children, acknowledging supportive influences around us, or sipping cocktails and trading bon mots from our mothers – continues their act of creation, enabling their words and energy to live beyond their lifetimes and acknowledging the debts we owe to them for the decades they spent raising us. It is because of our mothers that we can engage in the act of recollection and in the act of living our lives and pursuing the happiness that they wanted for us.
In asking my "sisters-in-loss" about their mothers, I like to think that we are beginning to form a collective of memory, a community that both commemorates our loss and celebrates our memories. And as we birth creativity in any of its forms, we connect our acts to those previous generations, and in particular, to the mothers who brought us into the world, and sustained us, and brought us to this season.
Our culture reminds us to remember them on Mother’s Day. But we don’t need the reminders, because we keep them with us, always.
Dedicated to our mothers, Shulamit Englander Kustanowitz, Margaret Ruth Notkin, Shelby Rosenberg, Marie Sarna, Leslie Fleisher Schwartz and Stephanie Ellen Sussman. May their memories be for a blessing.