Ok, I’m just going to admit it. Mother’s Day is hard for me. Really hard.
Wish I could just sleep all day and wake up on Monday after it’s all over hard.
And to be clear, my difficulty with this day has absolutely NOTHING to do with my children. Thankfully, they remember me and always do something nice.
My son and family gave me Dahlias for my garden, always a favorite, last weekend and I’ll see my daughter and her husband on Sunday.
I do really look forward to seeing my family, but underneath the smile I wear that day, the tears are brimming at the surface.
And when no one is looking, they spill over.
My family will never know, because I won’t tell them or say anything, to anyone. I try desperately to hide this, to conceal my tears until I am alone. I’m good at this, having perfected it for years now. I really don’t want anyone to ask, “What’s wrong?,” because, truthfully, I’d sound like an idiot saying “Mother’s Day.” And then, they would just feel bad too, and I certainly don’t want that, especially since they are going out of their way to make me happy on mother’s special day.
But that’s just it. It’s my mother’s special day too, and she isn’t where I can reach her.
Recently, however, more than one person has confided in me how difficult Mother’s Day is for them. And I suddenly realized – I’m not alone.
I have such conflicted, polar opposite, bittersweet feelings about Mother’s Day and I’ve felt like that was “wrong.” That I was somehow being ungrateful for my wonderful kids and my incredible mother.
In reality, it’s something else entirely.
If you’re one of my kindred spirits, you’ll understand immediately, and if you’re not, perhaps this will help you understand that beneath the smiles of mothers on Mother’s Day resides a grieving daughter.
Grief is always, always, intertwined with love.
Tied Up with Other Things
For me, Mother’s Day is tied up with other things too.
My Mom had a stroke in mid-April the year she died. I won’t go into detail, but the two weeks it took her to pass over were utter living hell.
I was called at work that morning – the call everyone dreads. I left immediately but was facing a significant drive.
When I arrived a few hours later, Mom had slipped into a coma. I had quickly packed a suitcase before leaving. I knew, from what my sister-in-law had told me that the situation was critical and I’d be staying.
When I arrived in Indiana, the trees were just beginning to bud and bloom.
Mom finally passed away on the last day of April, and we buried her a few days later.
The cherry trees, dogwoods, redbuds, and other flowering trees fully unfolded and bloomed in their full glory. They were stunningly beautiful those two weeks I stayed in Mom’s apartment, visiting the hospital every waking hour, holding her hand, talking to her, and waiting for her transition.
At least there was some beauty there during that extremely difficult time. I needed that nourishment for my soul. Thank God for my daughter who took time off work to come and be with me, at least for part of the time.
The day Mom passed away was cold, dark, stormy, and grey. It felt good to let the cold rain soak through my clothes into my skin, seep into my shoes and run across my face, mingling with my tears that wouldn’t stop. Part grief, part relief that it was finally over.
Rain, the crystalline tears of angels, watering the earth. Sustenance, bringing about life and beauty, even in the midst of death.
To everything, there is a season.
The day we buried Mom was a beautiful spring day. She was finally, finally at rest.
I remember waking up the morning of her funeral and realizing as I made my way out of sleep-fog what day it was. What a horrible sense of dread. I just needed to get through it – to somehow just place one foot in front of the other and survive that day.
Coming home after the service, a few hundred miles further north, the trees were just beginning to bloom there.
It was kind of like Mom followed along because she knew I’d need beauty and as much comfort as I could find in the following days.
Stunning blossoming trees will forever be equated, in my mind, with Mom’s final springtime journey to meet our ancestors.
On Mother’s Day, that year, I rented a U-Haul, finished cleaning out Mom’s apartment, closed the door for the last time, and brought my share of her things home.
Worst Mother’s Day ever.
At home, my daughter helped unload the truck. Had to be a miserable day for her too. At least we had each other, but we don’t talk about it.
It wasn’t until I lost my own mother that I understood my mother.
Mom lost her mother, suddenly, when she was 37, and then her father when she was 39. She had already been divorced, not by her own choosing, her fiancé killed in WWII, and then my father…well that’s another story entirely.
Let’s just say Mom’s life had been filled with heartache and tragedy. There she was, alone, without either parent, or a husband, raising me as a single Mom in a time when women just didn’t do such things, all before her 40th birthday. Her birthday, which happened between Christmas and New Year’s must have been miserable that year.
The deck was stacked against her in every conceivable way possible.
By all reckoning, Mom should not have “made it,” but she did. Not because of other people, for the most part, but in spite of everything.
That’s the woman who raised me. A tower of inspiration – but I just knew her as Mom. I never saw that until I was older and wiser. And maybe, just maybe, I began to see her in myself.
The Grieving Daughter
I never realized or understood that my mother was a grieving daughter.
How could I have missed this, you might wonder. Well, I wonder that too. Just like me, she never let on. Never told me how much those “days,” like Mother’s Day, her mother’s birthday, and her mother’s death day bothered her.
She kept it to herself…until one fateful day.
I could still just kick myself.
I don’t remember when this happened exactly, but Mom was in her 70s. As many other people do, I gauge when things occur by which house they happened in, or who was around at the time.
But first, before I tell you what happened, let’s step a bit further back in time for perspective, into the late 1980s and early 1900s.
Mom, my daughter, and I spent many years traveling about during our genealogy adventures.
Mom wasn’t a genealogist, but she loved to go along and bask in the essence of the places where her ancestors lived. We talked about what our ancestors did in those locations, their lives, livelihood, and challenges.
Of course, it was the genealogy research and information that were the foundation of those stories, plus a few oral history tidbits passed down along the way.
Sometimes the information we unearthed was much juicier than the “official” stories.
Mom always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. “Everyone is human,” she would say. Like when we discovered that her grandfather had neglected to get divorced from his first wife until after he married her grandmother, or that her great-grandfather had a none-too-complimentary story in his past too.
Mom and I scouted out our ancestor’s homes and gravestones.
We found their churches, and often baptismal and other dusty church records in leather-bound creaky books as well.
We visited them all, on multi-generational trips that included my daughter, then in grade school. She didn’t enjoy those trips nearly as much as Mom and me, but she was always a good sport. I’d wager she feels differently about those trips now that she’s an adult and her grandmother has passed on.
Pictured here, reflected in the church window, Mom always wanted to go inside and pray where her ancestors worshiped. She knew that most of the important events in their lives took place in the church. Baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. Churches represented family and community.
Even today, I can see Mom sitting in the front pew in the silent, vacant Lutheran church in Aurora, Indiana, alone, head bowed, with the light streaming in through the stained-glass windows, splashed across her shoulders.
I didn’t cry at the time, but I surely do remembering it today.
Yes, Mother’s Day is hard.
I miss her.
In Mom’s later years, after Dad died, she no longer went along on genealogy adventures. Truthfully, my life changed dramatically about that same time, and I no longer traveled either. I’m certainly glad we made those trips when we had the opportunity.
After Dad’s death, Mom’s focus was on her missionary work within the church, and her Avon route which was her way of visiting people, many shut-ins, and ministering to the needs of people who didn’t realize that’s what she was doing. Truth be told, that WAS her quietly-delivered mission.
Those “customers” thought she was coming to bring them an Avon book and see if they needed any Avon products. No one ever thought to ask why she returned again and again, like clockwork every other week, even when the answer was consistently no. Mom knew that most of those people could afford little.
Sometimes they would order something small. There’s no way Mom ever made any money driving to obtain the order and deliver the order on a 69-cent tube of Avon-brand chapstick. Not to mention she always gave those customers the “sale” price and a hefty discount. I saw her books after her death. Mom never made any money on Avon – period. In fact, she lost money every year. But making money wasn’t at all her purpose.
Mom always carried the same tan canvas bag, for years. The sides and handles were cracked and worn from the thousands of times she carried that bag with an Avon book and whatever she was delivering from her car into that particular house that day.
In reality, while she was the “Avon Lady,” Mom was bringing far more, including companionship and or perhaps the weekly tape recording of the church sermon for those who couldn’t attend. When the little country church didn’t have a recorder, she bought one, and tapes too. Then she bought tape players to leave with the people she visited so they could listen to those recorded sermons. All of that was from “the church” of course. I’m not sure anyone but me ever knew. The only reason I knew is because I had to teach her how to duplicate the tapes – one recorder and tape for each household. 😊
That canvas bag might also hold a dish she had cooked, sometimes frozen lunches for the week, groceries, medicine, clothes or whatever she thought they needed or could use. Mom always seemed to have “extra” of everything that she needed to get rid of, or at least that was her story to them.
She was checking on her “customers” without them having to feel awkward, asking if they needed anything picked up “on the way,” and notifying their family if something seemed “off.” She called each customer at least once every week, on the week she didn’t visit – and sometimes more often.
She knew about their families, illnesses, medical conditions, woes, and their joys too. She knew everyone’s child’s name, grandchildren, and every pet on the place, past, and present. She grieved with them when someone died and celebrated happy events. She was constantly attending funerals, weddings, and baby showers, often giving people rides.
She was literally on the road or calling people every single day, in all weather, regardless of what else was happening.
Mom was responsible for saving more than one life.
And I can’t even guess how many animals she saved over the years.
Mom no longer had time to “waste” on genealogy. That would be left to me at some future date.
I realize now that Mom knew this was her “last chapter,” and she chose to write it as a legacy of service – until she literally physically could not continue anymore, at age 83.
Mom’s Avon career, after retiring as a bookkeeper, lasted a quarter-century and longer than any of us thought possible. Through a broken back, broken ribs, and pelvis broken in 3 places – in three separate accidents. The last time, she tripped over a picnic table and fell at an Avon picnic. Her biggest concern wasn’t her own health, but what her customers would do without her, and who would look after them. We didn’t think she would recover – but she did AND was back on the road in just a few weeks. Everyone, including the physicians, was dumbstruck.
She was nearly unstoppable and exceeded everyone’s expectations.
One of Mom’s customers took this picture of her final delivery at their house on her last day as an “Avon Lady,” less than a year before she crossed over. They gave it to me at her funeral.
Mom’s “retirement party,” while a celebration to many, was a bittersweet day indeed for her. She was oh-so-grateful, but she was also incredibly sad.
I was the one who sat with her in the car as she cried. She wiped her tears, freshened her Avon makeup (of course), put on Avon lipstick, stiffened her now-stooped back, and told me, “Alright, let’s go inside.”
No one ever knew how much she dreaded the next chapter.
Her Avon customers, family, and church friends honored her with a reception, a dinner, and incredibly thoughtful gifts.
Mom knew her life was changing, and she didn’t much care for the direction. She was also moving an hour away, close to my brother and his wife, as she was becoming increasingly frail and needed assistance. Her memory was also failing. We discovered later that she was having small strokes.
I had hoped Mom would come and live with me, but she was independent to the end and wanted to stay within driving distance of her home church and the people she had come to love so much.
Thankfully, I went home more often in those last few years and helped her as much as I could. At least, as much as she’d let me. Lord have Mercy, that tiny snip of a woman was stubborn!
It was during this time that I came to realize what had been happening her whole life.
When I drove home for the weekend, I often took my latest genealogy documents and finds along to share with her. We had long ago sifted through everything she had.
It was also during this time that she tested her DNA and I was able to share those results with her as well. Of course, compared to what we know today, those results back then seem quite primitive – but nonetheless, she was enthralled. In fact, Mom told me in her last few months that I should “do that,” meaning make DNA understandable and meaningful to people.
At the time, I dismissed her advice as a “mother thing.” Mothers have to say nice things about their kids, right?
During one of those trips, I took a folder I found at home holding several things that I think my great-aunt, my grandmother’s last living sibling, had sent me a few years earlier when she realized I was interested in genealogy.
Among those items, as Mom and I sorted them, was a newspaper clipping of her mother’s obituary.
I still remember that exchange so clearly, sitting at her kitchen table.
“Mom, look, there’s a picture of your parents in the choir on the church float.” I wondered if she had ever seen that before.
“And look here,” I continued, “it’s your Mom’s obituary.”
I had never seen my grandmother’s obituary before and had kind of assumed that because they lived in a tiny town, there wasn’t one. I never thought to ask, because surely, Mom would have saved a copy if there was one to be had. She certainly saved any variety of other things interleafed in the pages of the family Bible.
Mom was sitting across from me at the table and looked up.
I saw the tears well up in her eyes, before she even glanced at the papers I had spread across the table.
Then she reached for the yellowed obituary.
Like a dolt, I blurted out, “I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t realize that would upset you. I’m sure you’ve seen this before and I would have thought you would have been OK with this now.”
How could I have been so tone-deaf?
I didn’t mean it the way it came out, but exit my mouth it did.
What she said to me was a gift though and helps me so much today.
“Honey, you never get over your mother’s death. It’s never OK.”
She knew that one day, I would learn that first hand. So did I.
It’s Never OK
I didn’t expect her to “get over” her mother’s death, but she surely had seen that obituary before, right? And it couldn’t have taken her by surprise. It didn’t occur to me in that moment that maybe there was a reason WHY I had never seen that obituary. Why she didn’t have a copy.
I was truly mystified at her immediate reaction, going from pleasantly chatting and looking at photos to tears in about 3 seconds flat.
I asked, “I realize that Mom, but doesn’t it get easier with time?”
“No,” she said, “it doesn’t. Sometimes, in fact, it gets harder.”
My heart ached for her.
“Like when, Mom?”
“Like her birthday, and Christmas when no one is looking, especially late on Christmas Eve evening after everyone else goes to bed, and her death day. And on Mother’s Day.”
I had never really thought much about those, although I was certainly grieving my Dad’s death. It was fresher though, and her mother had passed away 40ish years before. It never occurred to me that it was still so raw for her.
But then again, I had never lost my mother. I had no point of reference.
Then I suddenly realized, all those years I had been making a big deal about Mother’s Day, she was silently grieving. She smiled at me as I gave her gifts, brought flowers, and did nice things, but wept when I wasn’t looking.
She was my mother, but she was also always the daughter whose mother was gone.
She stilled missed and grieved for her mother.
I hope my presence made Mother’s Day at least somewhat easier for her – although I did have to send flowers a few years when I couldn’t visit in person. Now I desperately wish I had. I know my brother and his family didn’t.
The church always had a Mother’s Day luncheon, but she came home to an empty house after Dad was gone if I wasn’t there.
Somehow though, her grief at her mother’s absence was disconnected from me – and from anything that I could have done. She simply grieved her mother at that same level – forever.
Grief is the price we pay for love. Love with no place left to go. No mother to go and see on Mother’s Day.
The greater the grief, the deeper the love.
After Mom’s Death
When my stepfather died in 1994, the man I loved as Dad, I planted a memorial tree for him – something that would go on living.
When I later moved to a new place, I planted a weeping pine tree for Dad there too. I also transplanted some of his ferns I had dug from the old farm place to plant in my new garden.
I love Dad’s ferns. They are happy here and have done quite well – peeking out already this spring.
Now, I’m digging those ferns for my kids so they’ll have some too. Pass the love on, and the ferns too.
I fully intended to plant a tree for Mom, but that simply didn’t happen, at least not intentionally. But something else did.
And it’s perfect.
The Little Tree That Could
Planting my perennial garden and the landscaping in my new home took a long time – in part because I did it myself to spread the cost and work across multiple years. Mom passed away while that was in progress.
A friend of mine worked at a plant store/nursery. They threw plants out that were dying and they couldn’t sell. They didn’t care if she took them home, so she sometimes salvaged something for me. Most of those did die, but some did not, and let’s just say I had a huge canvas to paint. I might have been a little over-exuberant in terms of the landscaping. 😊
One day, I came home to find this truly pathetic little tree leaning against the side of a too-big pot with only a little dirt sitting in my driveway. It was about 2 feet tall and consisted of about 2 branches and a few scraggly leaves. A Charlie Brown tree if there ever was one.
At the nursery, the tree’s original pot had fallen over, the dirt knocked away from the roots, and the roots dried out. In the garden community, this is known as “bare-rooting” and generally, once the plant’s bare roots are dry, the plant dies. Especially a tree.
So, this little tree was thrown on the trash heap, nearly dead. It was hopeless so no point in wasting time trying to save something that would die anyway. Even if it lived, it couldn’t be sold because it would be deformed and ugly. Trash heap.
Except, my friend noticed that a few leaves on a couple of branches were still alive and green a few days later, so she put the little tree into a pot, watered it with some fish water from the coy pond, and brought it over to me.
We agreed that it probably wouldn’t make it, and if it did, it was likely not to be very attractive, so I planted it on the perimeter of the property. If it died there, no problem. It was in the wildlife greenbelt area anyway.
I don’t remember exactly when this occurred, but it was about the time Mom passed away, maybe even that year. I did not, at that time, associate it with her passing.
That little tree survived. The next year, it had maybe two or three branches with a couple of blooms. I had forgotten about it, truthfully, and had no idea what kind of tree it was. It turned out to be some kind of crabapple, maybe.
The following year, it grew a little more.
The tree struggled and survived, reconstituted itself, then became beautiful, I couldn’t help but think of Mother each spring as it joyfully sprang to life – exactly when I was feeling blue.
A few years later, it was, amazingly, 3 or 4 feet tall and began to fill out. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for rescued anything, and this little tree was no exception. It had survived despite the odds.
Now, I would be crushed if my little tree died.
It blooms every spring when I need it most, as I pass the anniversary of my mother’s death and head into Mother’s Day.
Every year, the tree is a little larger and more beautiful.
This is the 15th Mother’s Day that Mom’s been gone.
As I took my walk around the yard today, the little forlorn, forgotten, abandoned tree on the trash pile has blossomed stunningly. Don’t you think? Just like Mom did.
Other “landscape quality” trees in my yard have come and gone, but not this one. It’s a survivor, having grown substantially taller than me. It’s maybe 20 feet tall now, about half at tall as the pine growing behind it.
The little tree that could, and did, in spite of everything.
Mom’s legacy. This tree reminds me of her. In fact, it has come to represent her triumphs.
Earlier today, I picked up two care quilts from my friend, Pam, who quilts the care quilts that I make.
Mom accompanies me on this journey.
She is with me in the late nights while I make the quilts. They are delivered for quilting in her now-repurposed Avon bag. Of course, Mom’s bag stays with Pam while she quilts the quilts. Then, Pam returns them to me in Mom’s bag, ready to be finished and sent to the intended recipient.
It’s a small thing, but Mom is with me and her legacy lives on in every care quilt.
Today, I took Mom’s bag and one of those care quilts with a somewhat helix-shaped fabric outside for a walk around the yard, to visit her tree. As Mother’s Day approaches and I move through my personal challenge of mid-April to mid-May, I seek beauty, solace, and peace outside.
God is in the garden and Mom is in the tree, the quilt, and the bag. Actually, Mom is in me too.
It just seemed appropriate, with Mom’s tree and Mom’s bag and the quilts that Mom’s legacy has inspired in multiple ways to take this picture to honor Mom on Mother’s Day.
I’ve really been struggling this spring, approaching Mother’s Day. A number of things have converged to make the situation more difficult than normal, including this past pandemic year and 7 Covid deaths in my family. That’s not counting my husband’s best friend, other friends and acquaintances, and their families. Yea, it’s been a rough year.
As I was trying to decide whether or not to actually publish this article, I found something remarkable. My husband had just removed an old TV to be recycled from an area that we haven’t used as a family room in more than 15 years.
As I walked back inside, I noticed something bright and yellow laying on the floor. I bent over to pick it up.
I have absolutely no idea where this came from. We never, ever had Christmas in that room or even in this house with Mom. Also, there is no tape on this tag, nor is it bent. It’s pristine and was never used.
Regardless, this little gift tag became unearthed from wherever it was and fell to the floor where I couldn’t help but find it. A message from Mom – in her own shaky handwriting.
I need more Kleenex.
I’m very grateful for so many things in addition to this Angel gift tag. Ironically, this little tag is a HUGE gift itself.
I’m incredibly grateful for Mom’s fortitude and her perseverance.
My God, that woman was strong.
I wrote about Mom this year on the day she passed over and posted it on my Facebook feed, although there are only a handful of people left who knew her. Maybe I was actually talking to myself, or her.
Mom has been gone 15 years today. How is that even possible?
Thinking about Mom, I realize that she instilled what I consider to be her good qualities in me, by example. I’m not sure, at all, that others or society considered them to be her good qualities.
She quietly swam upstream, trying at the same time not to get swamped or drown. She danced as a career, bought and owned her own home, raised a child as a single Mom, and in a quiet way, told society with their biased, restrictive norms about what women could and should do/not do to go to hell. Except, she wouldn’t have said Hell because it wasn’t ladylike.
She knew she really couldn’t rock the boat too much or she wouldn’t survive. Hence, her constant, and ironic, comment to me. “If you would just behave…”, which still makes me laugh.
No mom, I don’t, and won’t, and neither did you. Pushing the envelope is never comfortable.
Thanks, Mom, for your strength and bravery. Your example of quiet defiance. “And yet, she persisted.” I see you when I hear those words. Because you did, steadily, maybe in the hope that if you were quiet about it, you’d get less pushback. But you never stopped.
Guess what, Mom, you succeeded.
I miss you so much. You would be proud of the progress we have made. And we’re not done. Your legacy lives on.
It’s odd to be grateful to have loved so much as to grieve forever.
Love never dies. Neither does grief.
So, Mother’s Day is hard.
But in a very strange way, I wouldn’t want it not to be.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and thank you, for everything.