First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 3.5.21
We’ve always said in our family that gifts don’t matter on Mother’s Day. And yet, as I write this, I am looking at the coffee mug my daughter decorated for me some 25 years ago, now living permanently on my desk and filled with pens. It features a house and some stick figures and has been signed by the artist. It might not be the first thing I’d grab in a fire, but it would be close.
Still, our family’s general attitude towards Mother’s Day has been more poo-poo than ra-ra. This goes back over a century, almost as old as the day itself. West Virginian Anna Jarvis trademarked “Mother’s Day” in 1912, intending it to be an annual homage to mums but, according to legend, spent the rest of her life railing against its rapid commercialisation. If you thought buying a card and posting it constituted honouring your mother, Ms Jarvis had some quite sharp things to say to you.
They would have been more or less as sharp as my great-grandmother’s thoughts on the subject. Lieutenant Edith Rogers (Salvation Army rather than infantry) strongly believed proper maternal respect should take up more than one day a year, and best involved regular involvement, and the spending of time, not money. She was unlikely to be impressed by some neighbour’s errant son who, in the normal run of things, failed to darken his mother’s door if she were poorly, but turned up with a flourish and some flowers on Mother’s Day and expected a pat a on the back.
Great-grandma also deeply lamented the rise of this imported American “Mother’s Day” at the expense of the much older Christian tradition of “Mothering Sunday”, that little pause in the austerity of Lent when families gathered together and mothers were given thanks.
So yes, traditionally, not much fuss was meant to be made of Mother’s Day in our family, especially not in terms of buying gifts. In the last couple of decades, my mother, my daughter and I settled on a new tradition of spending the evening together at a show. Which is a fancy way of saying that I was usually booked to perform at some Mother’s Day event or other, and I would nab them both tickets so they could come along, too.
Some of these events have entered into family lore. The complexities of the mother/daughter relationship can be a rich source of comedy material and, after some onstage story about my kid, I announced she was in the room – at which point she stood up, took a bow and enjoyed a round of applause. All three of us were giddy with it after. A few short years later, in her snippy teen period, she grudgingly agreed to come to the show but asked that I not tell any stories about her. Fair call. Afterwards, I asked if she’d enjoyed the night and she shrugged. “It was all right,” she said, “but you didn’t talk about me…”
One recent year when my mother had begun to be unwell, I told her I’d been asked to present at a writer’s event on Mother’s Day in another town, but perhaps she would prefer I stayed? “But you must go!” she insisted. Mother’s Day, Schmother’s Day! She would much rather picture me at a festival, talking about books – this was the thing that would bring her pleasure. But when I phoned her from a city a long way away, she sounded sad, and told me of all the fun things her friends had been doing with their children that day. I had made a terrible mistake, I realised, and flowers when I got back on Monday weren’t going to make up for it.
Most years, though, we got it just right. But I also know the day can be a tricky one for various reasons. Tricky for those who can’t be with their mother right now because of Covid-19 restrictions. Or for sole mothers who don’t have another adult parent who helps the kids to make a fuss of them. For people who have difficult relationships within their families. For people who might have hoped to be mothers but haven’t managed that. And for people who are having their first Mother’s Day without a mother to celebrate. I hope all of you find a way to feel love, and show love, on Sunday.
I will, as is tradition, be off doing a show somewhere on the actual day. And also, as is tradition, we will make sure there are lots of opportunities on the other 364 days to say all the mushy things and give all the help. And I will probably, just for old time’s sake, tell a couple of stories about my now grown-up kid. If she’s okay with that. I’ll ask her first.
First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 26.4.21
Someone from the luxury resort was on the phone to our room. They’d worked out we were up now because smoke was curling out of the chimney of our chalet across the courtyard. Midwinter in Queenstown, you need to light the fire as soon as you throw off the duck feather duvet and slide out of the thousand thread count sheets. “Chef would like to know what you would like for breakfast.”
This was many years ago, when I was booked to perform at Winter Festival. Part of the package was to be hosted by a sponsor – we were paid less in cash, and more in kind. Which is how we found ourselves at the same lodge Bill Clinton had stayed at on a visit to our shores. The kind of place where, if you were of a mind, you could ask them to rustle up a helicopter to take you skiing somewhere quiet. Possibly shoot a deer and have chef turn it into venison steaks for a private dinner served in the wine cellar if that was your mood.
I hadn’t seen a menu in our room, and asked where I should be looking. I was assured there was no specific list of breakfast options – just tell chef what you fancy and the kitchen will be happy to oblige. This, I realised, was what it was like to be rich. You didn’t just choose from available options, you told people what you wanted and they would make it their business to find it for you.
I should have been delighted by all this. Instead, the idea of imagining a breakfast out of thin air left me bewildered and a touch anxious. What would you like to have for breakfast when you can have anything in the world? Do you go hog wild (possibly organic hog, raised on the eastern side of a hill and served extra crispy) or ask for the ordinary thing that starts your ordinary day? Should I be who I am, or who I would like to be in another different life?
This was during my very lean years – raising a kid, scratching out a living, working hard to make ends meet, only just managing it at various points. No financial safety net, sleepless nights, all of that palaver. The kind of poor where you counted every slice of bread, and wept if something was broken or spilt or wasted because you couldn’t see how those things could be replenished. The kind of poor that makes you edgy and short-tempered, and saying something like, “Never mind, we’ll get another one” would be speaking a foreign language.
So I spent those days at the luxury lodge wondering about two things. One was this: What if this package deal only covers the room, and a bill will presented when we leave for the chef’s breakfasts and delicious dinners? How the heck am I going to pay for that? And the other was: Now that I’ve seen how it works, I’m not sure if I’d be good at being rich.
Because we assume that we would be, right? We daydream about what it would be like to not worry about bills, to live easily and comfortably – or even extravagantly. Part of it, too, is that we imagine how generous we could be – the money we’d give away, the help we could give, the time we could spend on things and people other than work and worry.
But would I really know what to do with more money than I needed? Maybe what happens is you start to imagine you need things that match your money. Like helicopters and venison, and places to stay that nightly cost more than the average month’s rent.
I thought about that trip again recently when I had the family to stay. I can happily clarify two things now – first (everyone relax) the deal had indeed been all-inclusive and there was no list of extras to pay for when we finally checked out. (We should have said yes to the helicopter.) And second, my idea of what “rich” is has shifted somewhat.
Here is what it means to me now: no one in my house goes hungry, ever. We have adventures, buy school and also party shoes, stop for ice cream pretty much whenever we want. Sure, there is a little bit of mental maths going on (when is the power bill due again?) and also a line to be observed between “I’d love you to have this” and “Let’s not be greedy”.
I feel rich because I own books I haven’t read yet, and enough clothes to get dressed for a week without doing the laundry, and because now and then I can afford something exciting to look forward to.
And we are rich if we know that, worst case scenario, we have friends who would rally round; and that – boot on the other foot – we could afford to take a friend in and cheerfully give them houseroom if they needed it.