03 May For Mother’s Day 2021
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.