Last year my kids said the Mother’s Day card I bought for my mom didn’t look like her. The youngest shook his head, adding, “That’s not Nana’s taste at all.”
“Really?” I asked. How did he determine this? He was hardly an expert, as he had only met my mother four, maybe five, times in his life. His oldest brother hardly more than that.
The card I got her was fine. On its pale blue background bloomed two fat camellias, the billowy flowers embossed with the words “Happy Mother’s Day,” sans serif and all caps. Inside was blank.
What I wrote in the blankness:
I hope you are in good health and good spirits. Have a peaceful day.
I wished her good health since some part of her body usually ails her. And I imagined her spirits might be sagging since it was Mother’s Day. Her own indifferent mother was long dead and none of her daughters was currently speaking to her. Good spirits, very unlikely, but I really did hope.
Peaceful? Sure. If not happiness, why not some peace?
I cannot remember if I signed the note “Love, Coley” or just wrote my name.
About a year ago Mom sent me a book, for Mother’s Day I presumed, since it arrived the second week in May. There was a note on the packing slip.
I know we are not in a good place right now. Even if we never speak again, do this for me. Love you forever, Mom
Do what? Read the book? I studied the jacket on which Elizabeth Gilbert had written a glowing, heartfelt blurb. According to the summary, the story was about two sisters. One had cancer, so her sister gave her bone marrow. They also went to therapy together and, by the story’s sad ending, had cleared all their painful familial crap.
While Mom’s brief note did seem a little cryptic, I ruled out a veiled request for us to go to therapy. This, I surmised, since my mother is averse to talking about my upbringing. For her, talking about the past is akin to poking a rusty nail into a septic, maggoty wound. She usually ends up furious at anyone brave or stupid enough to broach the subject. That was most often me.
Mom promised we’d go to therapy once. When I was 20, I fell off my bike and smacked my head on the pavement, causing a clot of blood to bloom on my brain. After hours in intensive care waiting for the clot to go away, surgeons decided to operate. When the time for my surgery grew near, my mother and stepfather began sobbing at my bedside. While I lay motionless, curled in a ball, my eyes squeezed tight against the mind-blowing pain, they made promises to take me places and buy me things. Then, with just a few minutes to go before surgery, Mom declared, “If you survive your operation, I swear on the Bible, we will go to therapy.”
I opened my eyes, glancing at her sideways.
She looped the air with her hand to indicate my stepfather and me. “All of us will.”
An ICU nurse had come in. Her eyes veered to mine. I met her gaze and asked, “Can you take them away?”
She escorted my parents to the waiting room. When she came back, the nurse pulled a chair close to my bed and took my hand, which she held until they wheeled me into surgery.
We never did go to therapy and, no, I did not think Mom wanted to fly to my chilly midwest city to talk about things that happened in the past.
Nor did I.
And, no, I’ve never read the book she sent.
Last year on Mother’s Day, my youngest climbed in bed with me a little past seven and told me I would not have to do a single thing that day. I thanked him, but said it’d probably be best for me to set my expectations a bit lower.
The day turned out to be just right. My husband and I went for a walk by the lake. After, he helped me clean the oven. My foot was injured, so I sat in the sun and cheered on my soccer teammates in our annual Mother’s Day game. And, finally, that evening, I watched a predictable super hero movie with my boys while eating Indian take out. It wasn’t a particularly peaceful day, but it was, for sure, happy.
A few years back, and a week before Mother’s Day, I got this text from Mom: As I reflect on my life I see how God has given me everything I need. Please do not call or send cards or gifts for Mother’s Day. Instead give your money to the poor.
It was a group text, so was sent to my sister Shannon and two nieces as well. I messaged my sister immediately.
Me: This is the nicest thing she has ever said me
Shannon: She probably doesn’t mean it
I texted back: Problem is, I already sent something!
The day before I had mailed Mom a framed photo of our family taken at Trunk Bay.
My sister and I exchanged a few more messages. They were mostly wary, somewhat funny, a little mean, despite the fact that it is never a good sign when Mom got all holy-roller, religiosity being a mark of her illness.
I texted my mother to let her know my gift was already on the way. She contacted me after receiving the package. The glass had cracked and Mom reported nearly slicing her hand off while opening it. In her message, she told me never to send her anything glass EVER AGAIN even though, for years, I’d sent framed pictures of my kids for practically every occasion and no complaints.
Not long after Mom’s salty text, my half-sister called. My half-sister confided that, weeks earlier, Mom had been arrested, mainly for assaulting her, although there were other disturbing charges. Mom had also moved out of the house she shared with her third husband. She had assaulted him, too. He had pressed charges and was filing for divorce.
I hung up, never so thankful for the thousand miles between us. I thought, that explains Mom’s behavior: the pious Mother’s Day text, her grouchy admonishment about broken glass. I called Shannon for corroboration and details.
My sister Shannon would have made a brilliant secret agent. Shannon is beautiful and any hair color suits her. She has nerves of steel and, wow, can that woman keep her mouth shut. Consider this: We had texted a bunch and spoken at least three times since all this went down and she had breathed not a word.
"What happened?” I asked.
My sister released a lengthy sigh, then began the saga by reporting how, right before Mom’s arrest, she’d taken a break from contact with her. This information shocked me more than Mom’s unhinged behavior. I knew something godawful must have happened for my sister to ask our mother for a break and stick to it.
Her voice catching, Shannon said, “She went after my girls. She started saying how they were —”
She couldn’t go on for a full minute.
Pause game. I won’t get into what was said, only ask you to imagine what it must have taken for my sister, who believes God commands her to honor her parents, to ask our mom to let her alone for a little while.
Back to her story.
My sister had been out of touch with our mother for a week or so when she got a call from the Orange County jail. It was Mom. She was locked up and demanded Shannon get her out. Immediately.
Shannon told me, “She didn’t ask. Didn’t say please. She acted like it was my fault somehow.”
After they hung up, Shannon called Mom’s third husband, the guy who had had her arrested. She then spoke to our half-sister. Everyone agreed Mom needed help, ideally an extended hospital stay. Everyone, that is, except my mother.
Since she wouldn’t get help and her husband and youngest daughter had taken out restraining orders against her, Mom could not go home. Shannon found Mom a place to stay far away from the two individuals against whom her contact was restrained, then paid the bail. After, one of my uncles spirited Mom to the home of family members an hour away. That is where things stood.
The tale was upsetting, stunning, even by our family’s standards. For a few moments, I was speechless. When I could reply, I said, “I’m sorry you had to deal with all that by yourself.”
Shannon replied, “It’s fine. There was nothing you could have done.”
My kids like to give me noisy cards on Mother’s Day. This is probably because they know I hate them. I’ve tried to be cool about it, laugh when they give them to me, sing along or dance to the silly ditty, but, inevitably, they open the noisy card and play the song/phrase/sound so often I end up tearing the thing to bits.
A couple years back, I banned noisy cards from our house. I no longer allow cards that, when opened, play LMFAO songs or shout, “BOO YA!” or make fart noises. The boys weren’t happy about this pronouncement. They tried to get their dad to intervene, but he refused. I think they finally came around when I pointed out how noisy cards cost about three or four times more than regular ones.
My kids still give me rambunctious greeting cards. Last year, their joint Mother’s Day card featured a badass toddler on the front. The little chunky monkey wore mirrored sunglasses and a straight cap. Long gold chains and a cookie-shaped gold medallion hung from his neck. Diamond chunks shone on his ears and tattoos covered his plump, stubby arms.
In large, bold all caps, the cover screamed: MOM, YOU MADE ME WHO I AM.
Inside more bold capital letters inquired, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!?”
In my early twenties, I sent my mother a poem I wrote for Mother’s Day. It was called “Just Plain Blue” and was about the room Mom and Shannon and I shared when I was a child. At the time I believed I’d sent Mom the poem because I was too broke to buy her a present. I certainly was broke, but, having recently excavated the poem from a stained file folder thick with numerous dreadful poems, I have to wonder about my motive. I won’t include the whole thing here, but trust me, “Just Plain Blue” is terrible. As foreshadowed in the title, the poem over-relied on color symbolism. The last two lines, in particular, make me cringe:
a child. a woman. another generation
just plain blue
Yeah, I have no idea what that means.
When she received the poem Mom was outraged. She called and said it was hurtful, cruel, worse than receiving nothing at all. All the people she’d shown agreed.
Looking back, I can understand how she felt this way. If Mother’s Day is supposed to be the day to thank and honor one’s mother, “Just Plain Blue” failed utterly. That was more than twenty years ago. Apparently, I’ve been confused about how to thank and honor my particular mother for a very long time.
I just mailed Mom this year’s card, a graphic thing awash in pastel colors with very little text. It’s square shape required an extra stamp. I also sent her a framed picture of my boys goofing around with my nieces.
I won’t have to be in touch again until Thanksgiving.