Today is Mother’s Day, that hallowed, Hallmark holiday that makes my toes clench. It’s been almost five years since my mom died, but each annum, when FTD goes beserk with its guilt-driven advertising, I get very grumpy. I do a lot of glaring. Not at mothers – mothers are awesome! but just in general. I get a furrow in my brow and do a lot of declaiming about Manufactured Capitalistic Sentimentality.
My mother grew up in Yakima, Washington, home of crisp apples and beef cattle. She was the second of four children born to Chet and Ellamary Hatfield – he of community theatre and fabric and she of peaches-and-cream complexion. My mother was not the son that was hoped for, and spent most of her life feeling it keenly. My grandparents did get their boy…he arrived after my mother. Until then, my mom got tool sets for Christmas.
She grew up getting penmanship awards and permanent waves. She once told me that one of the proudest moments of her life was when my grandmother commented, in an off-hand way, that my mom’s teacher had complimented her classroom artwork. When I knew her, my mother rarely drew. When she did, she’d apologize before even starting, and then make these little “hm” breaths as she sketched a cow, a tree, a flower.
When my mom was very, very sick, she came to stay with me for about a month and a half. Outside, I was the model daughter – solicitous, patient, loving, anticipating. Inside, I roiled. I was terrified and pissed off. It was palliative care, at best, and it infuriated me. She was in pain, and she was dying, but she would tiptoe down the stairs to avoid waking us in the morning, and make BBQ chicken for the grill, and smile sweetly and supportively at our Superbowl party.
I’m at the age when many of my Facebook friends have babies, or even full-grown kids. It almost completely freaks me out. I love looking at their photos, and watching them grow up over cyberseas, but it also gives me a kind of panic. All my life, I’ve done things fast, and first. I taught myself to read when I was three. I was en pointe at the age of nine. I graduated from college in three years. I got married when I was 21. But here I am, not 21, and I’m also not sure if I will have kids. And I just had a wee epiphany: Maybe I’m scared because I think I won’t be as good as my mother. Not in how well she scored, I mean, how Good. How Patient. How Understanding. How Loving.
That’s not to say my mother never lost it. Most people remember my mom as the woman who always spoke in a gentle, melodic voice, who laughed like hee hee hee and whose eyes crinkled when she smiled. But I knew that if you happened to be a telemarketer who called at dinnertime, you’d get the Motherload. “Hello”? she’d coo, like a casserole. If there was a pause, my sister and I would freeze, forks raised, our eyes darting to our mother. In slow-motion, we’d see her lips slowly purse together, her fist clench, and her face fly off. “WE HIGHLY DISAPPROVE OF THIS FORM OF ADVERTISING AND WOULD NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, SUPPORT IT BY MAKING A PURCHASE OF ANY KIND.”
SLAM goes the phone.
Then she’d turn back to us with a dish of mixed vegetables, push her face back on, and my sister and I would start to breathe again. It was when she roared. That sudden, wide-jawed maw of terror that could make my eyes water. When my mother got mad, her whole body shook. But, being one of the strongest women alive, she managed to wrap a barbed wire fence around that rage, and make it, apparently, only a dull simmer. I remember one day when I was about nine, catching her pacing in the kitchen when my dad hadn’t arrived with the car and we were already late for a lunch with my grandmother. Goddammit! she was hissing through tears. Jesus Christ! Goddammit! I flattened myself around the corner like I’d just witnessed a murder. It was absolutely terrifying to see my mother so upset.
Now, I’ve seen Precious. I know that my mother’s version of “upset” is what most people would call “the norm.” But to me, it felt as if my feet had come off. When my dad arrived, shambling and apologetic, I flew at him in a rage. YOU’RE LATE, I doomed. MOM’S MAD. Then I scrambled into the car and slammed the door. Through the windshield, I watched my mom bang out the front door, bang past my father, bang out some interestingly cutting remarks, and then bang the car door shut. She straightened her light blue suit and blinked her eyes in the rear view mirror. Buckle up, said Bette Davis, and so I did.
There’s a book I love, where the title character goes around the galaxy speaking at people’s funerals. But he doesn’t eulogize. Instead, he tells that person’s honest story. Who they really were. The beautiful with the grotesque. In doing, he and those present honor the dead with the absolute truth. It’s often painful, but when he’s done, everyone feels like they understand who the person really was. That they experience compassion in an up-close way. It’s soul-shaking, but ultimately, healing.
Here’s what I think should occur on Mother’s Day:
I think we should all be forced to experience
(in our whole bodies and minds)
a single moment of what it was like
(in its most trying moment)
to be our own mothers.
We should be forced to understand the near-sainthood required to raise us. Then, we mash in all the times our mothers yelled, or embarrassed us, or guilted us into herculean tasks, or insisted on wiping our faces with their spit. Because surely, surely, those halo-worthy moments balance a world of sins.
My mother, my Kathleen Osmanski, was not my first mother. I did not come from her womb. But in every other way, I am of her and she is of me. If I ever do become a mother, I hope her good will guide me.