I have worked in public education long enough that it is not uncommon for me to encounter former students, some of whom are now married with careers and children. It is always surreal to meet these adults who, just a twinkling ago, were writing in their composition books about who they would become when they were all grown up. Likewise, they are incredulous to learn that I am now the mother of a daughter who is older than they were when they were my fifth grade students.
Equally perturbed by this scenario and all its implications is my daughter. It amuses me – my former students confronting the truth that there really was more to me than being their teacher and my daughter forced to face the reality that once upon a time I was not her mother, and other people’s children took up most of my time (and they also thought I was cool with great taste in clothes, music, and hair).
And, before that, there was another time when I was as young as she, with my mother at the ironing board, telling me, “Daughter dear, the world is your oyster.” As a bored teenager, I probably didn't think she had a life before I came along or that she had once been a hopeful teenager, or somebody's best friend, or the one with the great sense of style. Of course she was all of these . . .
South Derry is so far away from where I sit in Arizona, the distance between us all the more poignant on Mothering Sunday. A phone call or a visit on Skype will help minimize the miles between Castledawson and Phoenix, me falling softly into the comforting colloquialisms of home. But it will not be the same as handing her a bunch of fresh flowers that she will immediately arrange in a crystal vase on the hall table.
My mother is wholly responsible for my appreciation and my expectation of flowers as an apology, a get-well wish, a thank-you, a birthday greeting, or a just-because (like the bunches of flowers my father used to pull from our garden and hastily wrap in newspaper as a present for my primary school teachers).
Even though she says not to waste money on a card, I know my mother loves to hear the tell-tale soft thud of an envelope falling through the letterbox. This year, it was a friend’s Facebook picture of a bouquet from her children that reminded me that I had forgotten Mother’s Day again. The inconvenient truth is that Mother’s Day cards won’t appear in stores for another month. Because the American Mother’s Day arrives on the second Sunday in May, after St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter, Administrative Professional’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, and Nurse’s Day, if I want to buy a card for my mother, I must rely on my memory almost a year in advance.
I always thought I had a sharp memory. Until during a typical early morning Facebook exchange with my brother in Limerick, during which I shared a spectacular, cringe-worthy – and, let it be noted, extremely rare – example of my forgetfulness. It reminded me of Meryl Streep when she was so frazzled by not getting the Donegal accent quite right for her role in "Dancing at Lughnasa" that she forgot her lines. “I never forget my lines!” she tells a fawning James Lipton inside his Actor’s Studio. Like me, Meryl Streep has a phenomenal memory that she can always count on. At least she did, before menopause.
Unlike Mr. Lipton, my brother did not think to grovel his way back into my favor, by bringing up my stellar ability to remember great chunks of Seamus Heaney’s poetry or dialogue from "When Harry Met Sally" or "Goodfellas" or what my best friend’s boyfriend’s sister wore to a disco in 1982. Of my memory lapse, and without missing a beat, he typed back: “I know you have had a traumatic couple of years, but really my dear, that is CLASSIC you. You’ve a head on you like a sieve!!!!!!!
A purist who rarely resorts to the exclamation mark, my brother clearly believed the words flying from his fingers. Or maybe he was just trying to get a rise out of me. Opting for the latter, I protested with a sprinkling of playful question marks, exclamation points, and various other symbols, wondering if he was confusing me with somebody else, like our mother. She will tell you herself that she can’t remember anything. But he wasn’t having any of that.
Emphatically and with even more exclamation marks: “No!!!!! Your memory and recall of specific events, places and things has always been appalling!!!! You do have good emotional recall. You’ll recall how you felt about a thing, but damn all about what actually went down.”
And then he had the cheek to add a ubiquitous little smiley face :-) to soften the next blow: “Oh, sorry. I’m probably just overstating it now. But your memory was never, never, ever, by any stretch of the imagination, “amazing.” In any way, shape, or form.”
Sensing, perhaps, the lull in the middle of a Facebook “chat,” he began a cover-up, breezily adding that it was probably just his silly old memory that was at fault. Perhaps he just doesn’t remember that I have a good memory. More smiley faces and a bold “LOL.” To give him his due, he offered some reassurance by telling me I’ve never forgotten anything important.
Unless, of course, we’re talking about Mother’s Day, which I was until I remembered how I felt about finding out I have a bad memory.
As I was saying, it isn’t until after the Irish Mother’s Day has passed that reminders of the American Mother’s Day pop up in emails from Teleflora or showy Hallmark displays in the grocery store or at the carwash. I have developed a strategy to cope with this annual conundrum, outsmarting the calendar with the clever purchase of two Mother’s Day cards in May – one as a sort of consolation prize for possibly having forgotten the Irish Mother’s Day, the other for the subsequent March. It is a brilliant plan, except it rarely works, because I will put the card in a safe place i.e. lose it amongst bills and all the other papers I need for the Tax Filing Deadline Day which, naturally, is sandwiched between the two Mother’s Days (but after my birthday) along with all the aforementioned holidays that someone has kindly listed on the Greeting Card Universe website.
But because it is Mothering Sunday, I am drawn to an enduring memory of my brother and me, to a time when he had more respect for his elders. Scrubbed clean, uncomfortable in our Sunday best with all the other children, we are proceeding in a crooked line to the front of the aisle of Antrim’s All Saints Parish Church, where we will collect from a beaming Reverend Thornton a single fresh flower to give to our mother. I was going to send flowers this year, but instead opted for a gift of gourmet brownies from a company in the Cotswolds. I knew it would remind ma of a Christmas night when I baked a pan of chocolate fudge brownies while she and my dad were napping. More than that, the appeal of the Bluebasil Brownie company was in the packaging. The brownies would arrive in a brown paper package tied up with string, the kind of package that usually travels across the sea from my mother’s address to mine.
Since 1988, my mother has been sending me such packages – boxes filled with Antrim Guardian newspaper clippings about people I used to know but might not immediately remember, chocolate for my daughter, the obligatory three or four packets of Tayto cheese and onion crisps, teabags and always something for me to wear. (This last is typically something for which she paid entirely too much, and something I really don’t need, but she always dismisses it as “just-something-to-throw-on”). My husband was always intrigued by the brown wrapping paper and the string, unaware – as was I – that, by all accounts, consumer demand for my mother’s type of handiwork has gone rather mainstream. At any moment, we are but a few clicks away from the Bluebasil Brownies, artisanal gift-wrapping, jam-making and even the knitting of very complicated Aran sweaters, all of which she has practiced and perfected since childhood.
My mother’s first job was in Crawford’s shop in Castledawson. At the counter, she learned, among other things, how to wrap a tidy parcel in brown paper and string. In the way she had learned to bake and sew by watching my grandmother, she watched Jim Crawford skillfully wrap parcels for the customers. Soon she was expertly preparing packages of sweets and biscuits for those who wanted to send a taste of home to relatives across the water. Mrs. O’Connor, whose daughter was in England; Jim Crawford himself, who had devised a way to tie newspapers with string so they could be easily mailed to his relatives far away in Australia. Such newspapers travel to my Arizona home, not as frequently it’s true, so I’m glad I still have a few that I never opened.
My mother still has the knack for it and is quick to remind me that all this wrapping and knot-tying was long before there was any such thing as Scotch tape, so sometimes she would carefully pour sealing wax over the knotted string. There is both heart and craft in such an activity. But it is only in recent years that I have appreciated it, along with many of my mother’s gifts.
I have no idea how the ”Mothering Sunday” tradition began; it may, like a lot of things, have its origins in mythology. It is certainly a profitable day for the greeting card companies. For my mother, I have gladly handed over a small fortune on greeting cards. Admittedly, some were perhaps a little less about making her day and a little more about assuaging my guilt about having put down roots so far away from home.
To confirm my suspicion that others know how to make a penny or two off this guilt, I took a quick trip online to the corporate page of undisputed heavy-weight champion of the greeting card industry, Hallmark Cards Inc.
Ruefully, I learned that along with millions of other people, my loyal patronage has contributed to a consolidated revenue of $3.9 billion in 2013. According to their website, it is Hallmark that “makes the world a more caring place by helping people express what’s in their hearts and connect in emotional ways with others.” I might not ever again hand over a fistful of dollars for a folded piece of card-stock emblazoned with a generic message and a stock photograph.
Still, if I hurry, I will still be able to send a box of brownies and I might make same-day-delivery for a bunch of flowers, to let her know I’m thinking of her. Rationally, I know that all the flowers in the world will mean little to this woman who has tossed and turned too many nights since November 11, 2011, when she cried out in disbelief that “her wee girl has cancer,” and again in November 2013 when that same girl's husband died. Cruel and ironic that at 76, just when she thought she didn’t need to watch over me any more, she must experience the sleeplessness I imagine is known only by mothers whose children are lost or sick or in trouble.
So thank you, ma. On Mother's Day and every day.