On the morning of my sixth birthday, my mother slipped a sepia photograph of herself into my Cinderella lunchbox just before I dashed out the front door for school. I saw her do it. I was sitting at the kitchen table, shoveling in that last, delicious spoonful of Cream of Wheat — ready to bolt out the door shortly thereafter — when I suddenly sensed that something felt a bit off balance; just a little jagged and sour-smelling.
I approached her from behind as she was standing at the kitchen counter, and I noticed how her hands trembled just the tiniest bit as she tucked the photo into a baggie and slipped it carefully beneath my banana. I could tell by the way her slender back was so deliberately turned away from me — so closed off and sealed up, more like a wall or a barrier than my mama’s graceful, beautiful back — that she hadn’t wanted me to see her do it. She’d wanted to surprise me with the photo; a birthday surprise that would make me smile when I opened my box a few hours later at lunchtime — because I’d find her.
More and more often after that, Mother would tuck little pieces of herself into my pockets before I left for school; a shiny brass button, the lace hanky she used for church; a piece of peppermint candy. Maybe a small swatch of brushed velvet from her sewing box that she’d spritzed with her favorite (and fabulous) Jean Nate perfume just for me.
And after a time, I came to expect these little secret surprises, too. I looked forward to discovering those tiny bits and pieces of her, because they reminded me that she was alive and vibrant and moving about somewhere on the face of this earth — even if she wasn’t there with me, say, in the sandbox at school or the bright, open room where we ate lunch and had story time. Somehow, as long as I could hold her shiny brass button in my little hand during nap time (I hated nap time), I knew I’d be OK. I knew that she’d be sitting in the front hallway waiting for me when I got home from school, ready to kiss the very center of my forehead the second I walked into the house.
And as much as I cherished her little love gifts and everything they represented, I understand now (almost 50 years later) that what had disturbed me about the whole photo-in-the-lunchbox thing was the pending sense of forced separation that the gesture created. What came alive in my little-girl imagination was the gnawing possibility that my mama might have been sick or hurting or trying to prepare me as gently as she knew how for the day when she wouldn’t be there waiting for me when I got home from school.
What really had me feeling all mopey and wilted around the edges on that bright birthday afternoon five decades ago was the abstract but all-too-real possibility that there’d eventually come a moment — a moonlit night or a sun-brushed day — when the buttons and hankies and sweet-smelling swatches of velvet might be the only pieces of her I’d have left to hold onto. And learning to be satisfied with and comforted by the mere idea of her was not an emotional skill I could master just then. I was too young. My heart was too lost in love.
I didn’t think I could ever love the idea of Mother as much as I loved Mother herself. Even thinking about it created a dust-up in my spirit. It made me want to kick myself in my own shins — hard enough so that I could feel the pain and know that I was still alive and breathing and capable of feeling feelings other than the white-hot panic I knew would certainly swallow me up whole if she were ever to leave me alone in a world without her.
Well, she did leave me in a world without her.
And in the days and weeks and even years after she died, I often felt like I didn’t want to keep on living myself. Of course (being the pack rat and proud keeper of the flame that I am), I still have her buttons and her hanky and even her bottle of Jean Nate, all perfectly preserved and tucked away to this very day. And even though it’s been 25 years since her death, a few drops of her perfume still remain. Her memory remains. We remain, mother and daughter, strong and solid and certain in the love we have for one another.
Our relationship today is deeply spiritual and infinite in its depth and dimension. And although I certainly didn’t believe I’d ever say this — and mean it — I can make the bold claim, with clarity and conviction, that the idea of Mother is what helps keep me centered to this very day.
So Mother’s Day, for me, while still poignant and bittersweet, is a powerful reminder of the fact that our moms don’t ever really leave us — even after they’ve left us. They stick around and watch us grow, and they smile from somewhere (happy in heaven, I’m sure) when we bring more children into the world.
Mother never met my 23-year-old daughter, Mary Elizabeth (named after my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother). They never met but they know each other well.
I know this because last year around this time, as Mary Elizabeth and I strolled arm-in-arm along the Tidal Basin admiring the cherry blossoms, she stopped underneath the gnarled, knobby branches of one of the biggest trees and turned her face to the sky. At precisely the same moment, a strong breeze blew, causing several of the pink petals to flutter down and land softly in her eyelashes.
“Take a picture, quick!” she said in her bossy, young-adult-daughter way. “We can frame it and hang it with the other cherry blossom photos we have of GrandMary at home.”
I smiled inside, happy to know that the idea of Mother had not only survived, but thrived — from one generation to the next. I snapped the photo, and we started on our way.