Mother’s Day cards were hard for me to pick growing up. Every year I’d walk into the grocery store in my hometown in Tulsa and go through each card, frustrated, wishing one would fit the way I felt about my mother. The cards were a conglomeration of gratitude and love; one with a jolly cartoon bear mom in a blue and white bonnet and matching dress on the front, cooking and cleaning and nurturing her flock of happy bear cubs; another was white and light blue with spring flowers of yellows and reds. The front said, “Mom, thanks for always being there for me, for loving me, for supporting me.”
With each card I read, the more I ached inside for the kind of mother I saw in the cards-fun, happy, protector of cubs, nurturing. I’d furrow my brow, angry I got stuck with the mom I did.
My mother, a neglectful woman whose mood was hard to determine, was in charge of us 2 kids on Sunday mornings. I was the youngest, 9, and my brother Eddie was 3 years older. My dad, who cared for us during the week by cooking the meatloaf and mashed potatoes, washing my soccer shorts, carting me to piano lessons and my brother to baseball games, was a minister and had to be at the church at an early hour on Sundays to prepare for the day’s activities. That left my mom, the parental understudy.
Being the preacher’s wife and in charge of us each Sunday made her more nervous and insecure than she was during her work week, where she taught first graders songs about dinosaurs and handed out big, red apples to students of the week. During the week we only saw her at dinner since she either stayed late at school, prepping activities and making home visits to at risk students or she came home right after school, making a bee-line for my parent’s large, drafty bedroom where she’d sleep until dinner time. I was jealous of the time she spent caring for her students instead of me, but her drive to give back to the same kind of student she had been, dirt poor, below grade level, and starved for attention, was strong.
I felt abandoned without my dad there each Sunday. My father and I were alike: introverts, who preferred time alone, without the TV blaring from my brother’s shows, in order to read, process and analyze, and learn more about our favorite writers Ben Franklin, Emily Dickinson, and John Updike. My favorite time with my dad was our drive to my piano lesson each Wednesday after school. The traffic was heavy, but to me that was fine because it meant more time with dad. I’d read my latest Archie comic book to him, giving him detailed descriptions of the action in each frame.
He listened intently, even asking pointed questions like, “Do you think Jughead will forgive Archie?” or, “What’s Reggie up to today?”
Sometimes, when we’d arrive early to my lesson, we’d play a game where I’d try to move my index finger in and out of a hole my dad would make between his fingers before he could close the hole and catch my finger. We’d laugh when he caught me, I’d squeal with giddiness when he missed.
On those Sundays when dad wasn’t around, the wave of loneliness would wash over me as my mom checked in to make sure we were ready for church in time.
“You better be ready soon or I’m going to give you something to be unhappy about,” she’d threaten from her bathroom door, never actually knowing the status of our readiness.
I would hurriedly brush my hair, put my contacts in (I’d worn them since I was 8), and put my dress and dress shoes on while trying to ignore the hurt and loneliness in the pit of my stomach. If I tended to the hurt instead, I ran the risk of not being ready before my mom and that was a sure fire way to become the target of all her stored up anger since the last time she’d blown. Her anger came from growing up with a mother who belittled and neglected her, favoring the 3 boys to her and her little sister Mary, and an alcoholic father who died when she was 5. He’d return home each night from a day of selling fruit off an old, wooden cart of his, pails of moonshine in tow to consume into the night. She learned at a young age to take care of herself and be independent, much in the same way I had.
When it was close to time to go, she would be the one hurriedly trying to put on her makeup, eventually making us late. Somehow though it would be our fault and we’d hear about it all the way to church, as we rode in the big, blue bomber car my brother and I had secretly named Mable, my mom’s middle name. We had learned that if we could make the pain funny, it didn’t hurt as bad.
It was a good thing I had Benny though, who would take the hurt away on Sunday afternoons and any other time I felt alone due to my mom’s moods. Benny was my stuffed, scruffy, white and brown rabbit who became the object of my kisses. When it was a particularly lonesome day at my house, I would turn to Benny to heal my rejected heart and make me feel close to something. Being with him, I felt listened to and loved, like when dad and I would travel to those Wednesday piano lessons. The more I kissed him on his well-worn, stuffed lips, the better I felt. In my mind he kissed me back and said so many nice things to me.
“I love you Mary. Come lay your head on my lap,” Benny would say. “Tell me why you’re so sad.”
I’d tell him all my mom troubles and he’d listen intently. I’d lift my head up and kiss him more, conveying how much I loved him through my passionate kisses and long hugs. The Christmas holidays were worse than Sundays though.
My mom and dad spent each Christmas morning cooking a dinner of perfectly browned turkey, fluffy mounds of mashed potatoes, bright green broccoli with too thin cheese whiz on top, and the rolls from Safeway that were uncooked and perfectly formed with rounded creases on top. My mom and dad loved each other as best two people raised in dysfunctional families could, but the main understanding between them was that mom was the one in charge. The talkative, playful man I knew when mom wasn’t around wasn’t the same man when she was present. He’d spend his energy dealing with mom’s personality instead. Quiet and non-confrontational, it was as if he believed if he was quiet enough and not really there, he’d miss being the target of mom’s displaced anger and nagging. I understood why my father rolled up into a ball when my mother was around and this made me angry that my mom couldn’t just let us be ourselves, but I also felt angry that the only other adult in the family, my dad, didn’t save us from her.
As the morning wore on I could feel and hear the building up of abuse as mom berated dad in the kitchen, when he wasn’t able to find the turkey baster. She opened each drawer to look and the closing of each drawer became louder and more aggravated as she circled the kitchen. I sat anxious in the living room, sad that another holiday was about to be ruined. Actual Christmas dinner consisted of me and my dad, my too-tired from helping with the dinner mom who felt that we kids never appreciated all the work she put into the dinner, and my brother, who sat down scowling and staying that way throughout the meal. We stayed quiet throughout the meal, taking dad’s lead, knowing that confronting her would only make it worse.
15 years later, an adult living in Austin, I ventured back into a neighborhood grocery store-upscale, colorful, and full of vibrant, young Austinites stocking up on organic apples and veggie burgers just before Mother’s Day. I made a bee-line for the card section, planning to send my mother her obligatory card, knowing my dad would be disappointed if I didn’t. I chose a blank, white card with a photo on the front of a young girl playing music. She wore a blue jean jacket and pink colored pants with a straw flowered hat too big for her head. She gripped an adult sized saxophone with no problem, head down, lips on the reed, playing. This child could take care of herself, as she probably always had, wanting to grow up as quickly as possible. The funny way she looked emphasized her sense of humor, which others appreciated about her.
As soon as I made it to the car, I scrawled MARY on the front, above the girl’s head, retracing it so it stood out. I opened the card and stared at the blank space, thinking of what I wanted to say to my mom. I closed the card to study the girl on the front one more time. Suddenly, it came to me, something positive and true:
Happy Mother’s Day.
Thanks for helping to make me the woman I am today.