Mother’s Day is a holiday that may evoke more emotions than Valentine’s Day when you are in love or Valentine’s Day when you are not in a relationship at all and wish you were. From greeting cards to social media postings you will hear people claim they have the “best mom ever”. I’m not going to claim to be the best mother, nor will I claim that I had the best mother. What my mother and I had in common is that we both raised kids that we were incredibly proud of and we tried.
My mom has been gone for nearly ten years and during that time in some ways I feel I have gotten to know her better than during the years she was alive. In her eulogy I described her as perhaps the most complicated and simplistic person I ever knew. I mean no disrespect when I claim that she was not the best mom, if she were here she would tell you that herself. My memories of my mother are broken into eras, even as a young child my early memories are of her in crisis. She was not yet thirty years old when she had all of her teeth pulled, her teeth had never been healthy and she had spent countless hours in dentist chairs beginning in high school in an attempt to save her teeth. This surgery left her sick and uncomfortable. As I transitioned out of baby food, I remember my mother eating it. I remember her pulling me on a sled to the dentist office to have her dentures trimmed and adjusted. Mostly I remember her being sad and sick. There were periods of my childhood that I spent with relatives while my mother through therapy and medications tried to learn to cope. She was a tall and sturdy woman but the impression that I had of her as a child was that she was frail and vulnerable.
I was in elementary school when my mothers parents moved back to Ireland and my grandfather died of a coronary before his dogs were even out of quarantine. My twelve year old brother and our cousin had arrived only the day before to spend the summer. I remember the chaos as my mother and her brothers obtained emergency passports and departed to plan a funeral and retrieve the children. I was taken to stay with an aunt and uncle who were left to tell me what I somehow already knew, that my grandmother died the following afternoon before her three children had arrived. For a fragile woman, this was too much to cope with. So she didn’t. This began a ten year period of sleeping days, staying up nights and trying to comfort herself with cheap vodka and Andy Williams albums. Years of feeling like she had been a disappointment to a domineering father and instead of relief she somehow felt guilty and that manifested itself in a meanness that she only exhibited when she drank.
She had married her high school sweetheart who was a man of great patience and perhaps out of a desire to not make life any harder on him than living with her already did, my brothers and I maintained good grades, avoided trouble and didn’t make waves. Unless you were really close with our family you would likely not know that our home life was rather non-traditional with our father doing the shopping, the cooking and working full time. This was not to say that Mom was devoid of all domestic competencies, she was good at laundry and typically coordinated it so she could fold clothes during soap operas. She loved to vacuum and did it more frequently than necessary. She may also have been the only woman on the block to frequently sweep the front steps and sidewalk. Making beds was another area she was obsessive about. Orderliness was more of a priority than cleanliness, so things often stayed where they were placed for years.
My mother loved reading magazines and smoking cigarettes and typically upon getting home from school she could be found at the kitchen table doing both. She did not enjoy shopping, I can recall perhaps three trips to purchase clothing with her while I was growing up. Before I started doing my own shopping in junior high most of the clothes in our family came from the Sears catalog where crowds could be avoided. I took her when I shopped for my wedding dress, a rare trip down town with her.
It was only a couple of months after I married that my father passed away. Though her drinking had subsided during my college years there was a sadness that fell over her when he died that she carried with her the rest of her life. With the arrival of grandchildren she found some joy. She was torn when she could no longer afford to live in the house she had raised us in, a home filled with memories and many moments best forgotten. The contents of the home were sold during an estate sale, the accumulation of several households of saved items; family bibles, wedding dresses from the 1800’s, an excess of furnishings. She and my father were both the last of their generations and the contents of other lives had all came to rest in her home, a visible physical and psychological burden.
It was not until I helped her choose furnishings for her small apartment that I had ever given any thought to what her style or preferences might be. Every item in both our home and family cabin were hand me downs. Other than our white and somewhat generic dishes I don’t think there was anything in our home of our mother’s choosing, unless it came from Sears like the red and white striped awning-styled curtains in the kitchen or heavy golden drapes that hung in our living room.
I don’t wish to leave the impression that my mother had no personal preferences it was just that those she did have were incredibly simple; Butterfinger candy bars, Coca Cola, the color red and KFC. When my kids were young my mother would watch them if we attended a wedding or were celebrating an anniversary. We would take a bucket of KFC and a couple of VHS movies to her apartment. My brothers and I had given serious consideration to having her ashes buried in a KFC bucket. She liked Charlie perfume (more because it reminded her of my father’s name than the fragrance) and just this week I was willing to toss the final bottle that she had, kept not for the fragrance but for the reminder of her.
As flawed as my mother may have been there were many good qualities that she had. Because of her own weaknesses she championed the underdog and was incredibly compassionate. Old people enjoyed her because she would take interest in them and babies and children liked her because she was relatively uncomplicated. She was not the funniest person by nature but loved when other people were funny, she made a great audience. Since her parents had arrived from Ireland poor and spent their years socially climbing, in some unintentional rebellion Dorothy was impressed by nobody or perhaps she was impressed by everybody. Your financial standing or status in society was of little value to her, it was an endearing quality. When some folks are described as “old souls” I would say that my mother was a “young soul” a person who was arrested development as an adolescent. She wanted to eat candy, drink alcohol and listen to her music. She was naive and loyal.
So when I see someone say that they have the best mom, I am not jealous or even sad and I feel no need to challenge them. I had a mom that tried. Someone who was challenged at times by things as simple as getting out of bed in the morning. A woman who knew she was flawed and lived with shame and regret. She gave me a lot of examples of how I might not want to handle situations but she also gave my kids great memories that only an adult who remains somewhat childlike ever could. I honor her memory on Mother’s Day because her role as a mother was not something she came by naturally or always enjoyed but that makes her effort all the more endearing.