Crumbs in the bedsheets of joy

So, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a post about Mother’s Day without turning it into some huge pity party where I’m that host who ties on a few too many and then starts ranting while you, the politely horrified guest, back away slowly, a frozen smile on your face, before finding both a place to set down your half-full glass of Pinot Noir and an excuse to leave quickly. But here’s the thing: Mother’s Day is a painful holiday if you don’t have a mother. Now, I realize that many people out there have or had terrible relationships with their mothers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they too find Mother’s Day at best annoying and at worst horrible. But if you actually loved your mother and liked her a lot, too, then that second Sunday in May can much too easily become a yawning chasm of desperate longing. If you both loved and also liked your mother, and she died too young smack-dab ON MOTHER’S DAY, then there’s very little left to redeem the holiday. Especially if you were pregnant at the time with your first child and felt, irrational as it may sound, that everything might be okay if she could just stick around long enough to meet your baby. Especially if — and this is where you start looking for your coat because the whole thing really gets too maudlin, and you really can’t keep the sitter waiting — you were, oh, going to get married on that particular Mother’s Day but then, of course, had to cancel the wedding and instead plan a funeral.

It’s a challenge. I don’t like being jealous of my friends who can call up their mothers not only on Mother’s Day but any old time they want, who go out for Mother’s Day brunch or barbecues or mom-and-daughter mani-pedis and such. Over the past five years, my jealousy and my grief have diminished, but they’re still there, pinpricks targeting the balloons of other people’s joy.

Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that — hey! — I now have children of my own, children who don’t and shouldn’t grasp the extent of my ambivalence about this holiday. This weekend, Rachel and I will receive kindergarten- and babysitter-crafted gifts from two wee boys whose worlds still revolve largely around not one but two mommies. And I will find it touching, but slightly empty.

My mother never liked sentimentality. In fact, she wasn’t a fan of Mother’s Day, put up with my five- and six-year-old insistence on making her breakfast in bed even though she drank only instant coffee in the mornings and hated crumbs in the sheets. One year, when I was about 11, I found a card that read, “Happy Mother’s Day — now go away and leave me alone.” “That’s perfect,” she said.

My mother’s own mother died when she was 17, but she never talked about it, brushed off my questions about how she felt with answers like, “It was a different time then. We didn’t have relationships with our parents the way you do today.” I’m not so sure she’d be thrilled to with my harping on about the whole thing — online, no less. Probably she’d say something like, “Just open the card and eat a piece of toast in bed and hug those two boys and get through the day like you would any other.” Because, of course, the cliché is also true: for those of us in the trenches — and who isn’t, in some way? — every day is Mother’s Day. All those days add up to a lifetime — however long — of memories, and the point is to have the good ones far outweigh the bad.

So happy Mother’s Day to all of you. And for those of you who have lost a mother, I’m raising my glass of Pinot Noir to you. Grit your teeth and eat a piece of toast in bed and remember the best things about your mother.

And if you’ve read this far — thanks for sticking around.