My son and his wife treated me like royalty for Mother’s Day a few weeks ago. We went out with some of their friends, then came back to their house in Decatur where they cooked a delicious scallop dinner for me. The next morning I sat at their kitchen island drinking coffee and talking while Jess made thick slices of French toast. I loved having time to them all to myself and seeing them so happy as they are finishing up their first year of married life.
Mother’s Day has not always been a happy day for me. With an apology to my pastor friends, I admit that I usually try to miss church that day. I just can’t take the emotion of it. Even before my mother passed away a few years ago I didn’t care for Mother’s Day. I struggled most of my life with my relationship to my mother – not because she was a bad mother, far from it. She was such a good mother and homemaker that I always seemed to fall short. I felt many times that I was not the daughter she wanted. Mother’s Day services just seem to bring on more guilt.
Mother/daughter relationships are always complex. So many expectations, voiced and unvoiced, cloud our everyday interactions. I was never close to my mother in the way I would have liked and she probably felt the same. But deep down she always knew me.
For much of my life I felt I could never measure up to her. I grew up with stories of how popular she had been in high school where she had been a cheerleader, swimmer, and tennis player. Unlike me, she ran with the “in crowd”. All she ever wanted to be was a wife and mother and she worked very hard providing a beautiful house, delicious meals and a stable home for my father, sister and me. She drove Anne and me to our Girl Scout meetings, taught GA’s at church and made sure we had fun birthday parties. She was the epitome of the Southern woman of the 1960’s.
Mama was outgoing and loved people and my sister Anne took after her in her easy way with people. Anne was self confident, had a steady boyfriend and was always on the phone with her friends discussing the latest hair and makeup. I, on the other hand, was a rambunctious, smart child, who was a little chunky and very talkative. The social norms of junior and senior high were hard for me. I never had the self assurance that seemed to come so effortlessly to Anne.
Over the years I began to feel Mama liked Anne best. Mama was thin and stylish and always wore pretty clothes and she and Anne loved to shop. I would rather be running around the woods or riding my bike and often our shopping excursions ended up with me at the bookstore. I never fit into the “popular girl” image that I felt Mama expected of me.
After Anne’s death from cancer, these feelings festered inside me for years and I let little things bother me. When I would do well at my studies in college, but was asked by Mama who I was dating, I felt diminished. When Keith and I chose to live in an old house in the country instead of a nice subdivision, I felt she was disappointed in my station in life. And even though she loved Adam and doted on him, her comments about how “she just didn’t know what to do with a little boy” made me feel I had somehow failed by not producing a girl.
Still, deep down she always knew me. In that difficult year after Anne’s death, she understood that my sanctuary was sitting at the piano and losing myself in Mozart. When I spent a semester in Venice my junior year of college, she sent canned cakes and breads to make me feel at home. And I remember many a time after I had moved away that I would leave her house with a fistful of daffodils wrapped in a wet paper towel that she had fixed for me because she knew they were my favorite.
In her last years, a lot of the old inadequate feelings fell away. I made the 7 hour drive to Greensboro many times and she always told me how much she appreciated what I did for her. She leaned on me more and more and was always glad to see me. Those times are precious.
In the week before she died, she was in and out of consciousness. One day as she lay on the hospital bed in her nursing home room she said,”Millicent, I’ve always loved you. I know you didn’t think so, but I have.” She always knew me.
Her words comfort and haunt me now. I grieve for her laughter and love of people, for the way she bore the pain of her losses in life, for her wry, sometimes snobbish views. And I grieve the relationship we could have had if I had not focused on my insecurities and shortcomings.
We all do our best as mothers. I look back now and see the struggles my mother had with her own mother who expected perfection. I think she never felt she was quite good enough, and perhaps those feelings rubbed off on me. I’m sure I’ve passed my hang ups and problems onto Adam, but mostly I look at him with awe and I wonder how the heck he turned out so well. Maybe that was what Mama felt too, but never had the words to tell me.