My mother was a beautiful, giving, kind and generous person. She was also a product of the Jim Crow South, and white, hence a racist. She could hold a grudge longer than any Mafia capo, and she was capable of manipulative histrionics and crippling self-pity. She loved me deeply and took pride in my achievements; she also believed that I was going to hell, and could resort to sniping remarks at times when she was reminded that I earned a Master’s degree while she never got a chance to go to college. If she wanted you to writhe in guilt, and frequently she did, she would get very quiet and sigh sadly and say, when you asked her what was wrong, “Nothing.” And sigh again. She introduced me to roller coasters by dragging me into the front car of the Greyhound, the famous old wooden roller coaster at the Lakewood Fairgrounds in Atlanta which actually killed somebody once, and laughed hilariously while I screamed in terror for the duration of the ride, which lasted approximately five years. She wanted us to be independent, she said, but when my sister bought a house a whole 40 miles away from her, her reaction was a Mommy Dearest classic: “You must really hate me.” She was a mass of admirable qualities and infuriating contradictions. She was, in short, human.
I mention these items because it’s almost Mother’s Day, that time of year when writers, especially women writers, are apt to crank out prose poems in honor of good ol’ mom, or blistering memoirs about how mom made their lives a living hell, or tender paeans to the small people who made us mothers, or confessions about our failures to be the perfect mom—and I am really, really tired of reading them. (In theory, I would like to dispense with Mother’s Day altogether, but this year I am hoping for some cast-iron cookware.)
As any mother will tell you if she is being honest, those flowery word bouquets are the product of some highly selective memories, serious psychological repression, stringent editorial pruning, or all three. Likewise, the recent emergence of the Bad Mommy meme, in which moms confess to all kinds of sins or, better yet, recall the sins of their own mothers, are flip sides of the same coin: the Victorian idea that becoming a mother somehow makes a woman a better person, or should, and that there is comedy (or sometimes tragedy) to be found when this magical transformation fails to occur. The truth, boys and girls, is that motherhood just makes you a different person. Whether the sum total of this difference is positive or negative is very much a case-by-case determination, as any cop will tell you.
I could easily stitch together an essay consisting of a series of luminous memories of my mother, because it is a fact that, for reasons known only to the cosmos, most of the marvels I have witnessed in nature, I saw with her: the Aurora Borealis in Maine, that meteorite on a frigid winter night that came so close we could hear it sizzle, a shower of flower petals on a windy spring day at Dumbarton Oaks, the azure waters of the Tasman Sea meeting the slate-blue Pacific Ocean at Cape Reinga in New Zealand, pre-dawn snow falling silently on cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. Those are memories anybody would cherish, but the fact that I experienced them with my mother—a woman who was born into intractable poverty and then was orphaned and then the Great Depression hit—renders them almost holy. Nobody was more surprised or appreciative than she at how well her life had turned out, after a very unpromising start.
But those early circumstances also left scars. She had serious abandonment issues (see: “You must hate me,” above.) She never progressed beyond the strict, hellfire Fundamentalist religion of her youth, which was her only source of psychological stability for a long time. She was not well educated, and that made her painfully insecure and, at times, suspicious of new ideas. She had underlying mental health issues, perhaps traceable to some dark episodes with a long-dead uncle. (In the mid-1970s, her sister—my Aunt Dede from California—drove 3,000 miles across the continental United States so she and my mother could visit this uncle’s grave in Atlanta and spit on it, which tells you all you need to know.) When my sister and I grew up and left home, after my father’s death, my mom completely lost her marbles for awhile; there was a period when I would regularly field phone calls from her about how my sister had stolen jewelry or lawn tools or money from her, and God knows what she told my sister about me.
Nobody worked harder at trying to be a good parent. Yet despite what the self esteem gurus will tell you, mere effort does not guarantee good results. The thing my mom worked hardest on—instilling religion in me—would fit many people’s idea of psychological abuse today, while her idea of sex education was to drop a pamphlet from the Modess people on my bed one day and walk away. (I learned what little I knew about procreation from National Geographic pictures and Reader’s Digest articles with titles like “I am Joe’s Prostate.”) Still, that was more help than she ever got. And this woman who never set foot in an opera hall in her life, who made me listen to nasal white men in gospel quartets until I thought my ears would bleed, also sent off for a series of opera recordings that were my introduction to George Gershwin and Richard Wagner and Georges Bizet. As I say, she tried.
And ultimately, that’s what we should honor moms for: trying. I would like, just once, a Mother’s Day in which moms are not portrayed in soft lavender light or held up as hilarious/tragic examples of a failure to attain an impossible standard. My friend Priscilla once said that when she dies, she wants people at her funeral service to talk about all her irritating habits and personality flaws, “because then it will be easier to let go.” But irritating habits and personality flaws bind us to each other just as closely as do the more noble qualities, maybe even more so—which is a good thing, since we most of us are equipped with a lot more of the former than the latter. If you ask my daughters about mine, be prepared for a lengthy conversation. Likewise, it’s been a decade since my mother died, but I can still remember how she would jump and exclaim “Ooh!” in the car over every teensy tiny, itsy bitty bump in the road, including the bump at the end of our driveway that she knew very well was there. Man, that got old.
In the years after my dad died, my mother and I would sometimes go on vacation together. I met her once in Bangor, Maine, with the plan being to drive down to Bar Harbor. I got to the airport first, and with several hours to kill before her flight arrived, went grocery shopping for the cabin. It was dusk when I got back to the airport and went up onto the airport’s tiny observation deck to wait. The horizon was still light but the dome of the sky was already dark. I passed the time by figuring out where I was in relation to Boston and what direction her flight was coming from, and then I watched that piece of sky. A few minutes passed. And then I saw a tiny pinprick of light, which got steadily bigger and brighter and became a recognizable airplane, which then took a lazy turn to the south before its final approach and landed, taxied, turned around and pulled onto the pavement just below me, and then someone wheeled the steps up, the door opened, and there she was—as if through oceans of time and space, there had been a little string that had mysteriously led her straight to me.
God, she was aggravating. But that string that bound us together, the one that got tangled in all the flaws we both had in abundance, still binds us, and I miss her.