Having worked in schools for thirty years, it is not uncommon for me to encounter former students, all grown-up, some of them married with careers and children. Surreal to find myself standing shoulder to shoulder with these adults who, just a twinkling ago, were scribbling in composition books about who they might become. They are often incredulous to discover I am now the mother of a daughter who is older than they were when they sat in my classroom. Equally perturbed by this scenario and its implications is my daughter. It amuses me to watch my students confront the truth that I had a life outside the classroom, and my daughter face the fact that once upon a time I was not her mother and other people’s children took up most of my time and even considered me cool with great taste in clothes and music.
And, before that, there was another time when I was as young as she, bored and adolescent, rolling my eyes as my mother told me from behind the ironing board, “Daughter dear, the world is your oyster,” and maybe to charm me out of my ennui, she’d add, “you have the heart of a lion.” Non-plussed, I probably dismissed her as someone who had no life before I came along, someone who could never have been a hopeful teenager or somebody’s BFF or the one with the great sense of style. What a fool I was. My mother was all of these . . .
She is far away, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in the Arizona desert, stretched taut on Mothering Sunday. A phone call or a visit on Skype will help minimize the miles between Castledawson and Phoenix, me falling easily 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 or spotting a suitably showy Mother’s Day card on the mantelpiece.
The Mother’s Day card presents an annual problem, the inconvenient truth being that Mother’s Day cards won’t appear in Phoenix stores for at least another month, because in America, 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. And, it isn’t until after the Irish Mother’s Day has passed that reminders of its American counterpart pop up in emails from Teleflora or Hallmark displays in the grocery store or even at the carwash.
I have developed a stratagem 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. This 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, which occasionally coincides with Easter, my being born on Good Friday) along with all the aforementioned holidays that someone has kindly listed on the Greeting Card Universe website.
But because Mothering Sunday falls this weekend, I am again drawn to an enduring memory of my brother and me. It is perhaps 1975, and we are scrubbed clean and uncomfortable in our Sunday best. Along 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 collect from a beaming Reverend Thornton a single fresh flower to give to our mother.
Fresh flowers. My mother is wholly responsible for my appreciation – and expectation – of flowers as apology, get-well wish, gratitude, birthday greeting, or a just-because (like the asters and tulips da used to pull from our garden and hastily wrap in newspaper as a present for my primary school teachers). So I had planned again to send flowers this year along with gourmet brownies from a company in the Cotswolds. I knew the latter would remind her of a Christmas night in Phoenix, when I baked a pan of chocolate fudge brownies while she and da napped. More than that, the appeal of the chocolate brownie company is in its packaging. The product arrives 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 the late 1980s my mother has been sending 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 something for me to wear. This last is typically something for which she paid too much, and something I 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 was becoming mainstream. At this very moment, I know I am but a few clicks away from artisanal gift-wrapping, jam-making and even the knitting of very complicated Aaran sweaters, all of which she has practiced and perfected since she was a girl – not because it was organic or trendy, but out of necessity.
My mother’s first job was in Crawford’s shop in Castledawson. Behind the counter, she learned, among other things, to wrap a tidy parcel in brown paper and string. In the way she had learned to bake and sew by watching her mother, she watched Jim Crawford skillfully wrap parcels for the customers. Soon she was expertly packaging sweets and biscuits – Rich Tea or Arrowroot – that would deliver a taste of home to neighbors further afield, like Mrs O’Connor’s daughter across the water in England. Always efficient, Mr. Crawford had even devised a method of tying newspapers with string so news could travel easily to his relatives in America or Australia. My mother still has the knack for it, quick to remind me that all this wrapping and knot-tying was long before there was any such thing as Scotch tape, requiring her to carefully pour hot sealing wax over the knotted string. There is heart and craft in such an activity, so much that I cannot bring myself to open these Mid-Ulster dispatches. They remain in a drawer in my Phoenix kitchen – preserved ordinariness, a tribute to the way things used to be.
Now 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 red-letter day for the greeting card companies with people like me handing over a fistful of dollars for a folded piece of card-stock emblazoned with a generic message and a stock photograph. In truth, my mother’s day card purchases may have been less about making ma’s day and more about assuaging my guilt over having put down roots so far away from home.
Thus, it is a marked day, Mothering Sunday, and I wonder about its impact on a day that also belongs to adult children without mothers and to mothers with sick children, to women who ache to be biological mothers but are unable, to mothers whose children no longer speak to them and to children whose mothers have disowned them perhaps over a grudge or because the Alzheimer’s has rendered them strangers. What of them?
My mother was the first and best woman I will ever know. As those former students remind my daughter, I remind myself again that my mother has always been the woman who would be my best friend. I just didn’t always know it.
The truth is that greeting cards and cheery bouquets mean little to this woman who has tossed and turned too many nights since November 11th 2011, when the phone rang too late to bring good news. I imagine her telling my dad to turn down “The Late Late,” so she could hear me deliver the news that breaks her heart. “What’s this anyway?” she cries into the phone, “My wee girl has cancer! My wee girl has cancer!” And then too soon, another November night and in her Castledawson kitchen, undone again, unable to mend my broken heart when the man who loved me died so far away from me.
Just when she thought she didn’t need to watch over me anymore, she is right back to where she started in 1963, hoping for only the very best for her baby girl.
So thank you, ma. On Mother’s Day and every day. I love you.
A new mother at home in Dunsilly, County Antrim, 1963
friends laughing in the rain
A young wife, traveling with my dad through Ireland on a 7 days for 7 shillings trip, Wicklow town.