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 parent 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, and I find all of it highly entertaining – my former students confronting the truth that there really was more to me than being their teacher and my daughter forced to face the realty 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.”
My mother is miles away today, and I miss her the way I do every day, but it is Mothering Sunday which makes missing her more poignant. I know I need only pick up the phone to slip softly into the comforting colloquialisms of home. But it’s not the same. Even though she says not to waste money a card, I know my mother loves to hear the tell-tale envelope fall through the letter box. This year, the perfect card peeked out at me from a random section of the greeting card department. An inconvenient truth – the “official” 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 last week. It was a typical early morning Facebook exchange between my brother and me, during which I shared a spectacular, cringe-worthy – and, let it be noted, extremely rare – example of my forgetfulness. I imagine I felt a bit like 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. To hear her describe the shock of not being able to remember and to be thoroughly enchanted by the divine Meryl Streep, start the video at 26:49:
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 Wilfred Owen’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 year, 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 (but not with any seriousness) 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, NO! 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.”
Admittedly, that “emotional recall” part sounded reasonable, and in an instant I was in Mr. Jones’ class with the Lyrical Ballads learning about Wordsworth who was not one of my favorites until this very moment, because he said that poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Of course my brother didn’t think to go to such lengths.
Sensing, perhaps, whatever it is that you’d call a lull in the middle of a silent 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, 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 after the Irish Mother’s Day has passed. 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. Seriously.
But seriously, 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 the wonderful Christmas we just spent together, and the night 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.
For almost thirty years, 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, 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 remains somewhat intrigued by the brown wrapping paper and the string, but what neither he nor my mother realizes is that, by all accounts, consumer demand for her 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 Aaran 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. As she had learned to bake and sew by watching my grandmother, so 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 a newspaper arrived here last week. 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 Sellotape or 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. I wonder about the impact of this marked day that belongs to 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?
So on this Mothering Sunday, I am celebrating my mother as not only the first but the best woman I will ever know. The card says, “The truth is. Even if she weren’t my Mom, I would go out of my way to be friends with her.”
As those former students remind my daughter, I am reminding myself that my mother has always been the woman who would be my best friend. I just didn’t always know it.
Here’s to you, ma, and the friend you have always been.
Love and miss you every day.
my mother, far right, with her sister and friends holidaying in Portrush
friends laughing in the rain
as a young wife. In Wicklow town, as she and my dad traveled through Ireland on a 7 days for 7 shillings trip
a new mother in 1963 in their first home in Dunsilly, County Antrim
my mother with her first grandchild and me, Belfast 1998
fifteen years later …