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May 5, 2022

What to do with your Sorrow on a Motherless Mother’s Day.

motherless Mother's Day

As Mother’s Day approaches, I feel myself flinching.

When someone we love goes and never comes back, the story of who we were with them ends, and how we celebrated our relationship has to change. I will never again be a mother’s daughter. That version of me has ended.

As a child, I had a recurring nightmare that the upstairs toilet in our home swallowed my mother and she was gone. Perhaps it’s this premonitory impulse that Rilke identified when he wrote, “the future enters us long before it happens.” I always dreaded separation from her. I suspect that explains why the pain of our immigration (almost 21 years ago) has viciously turned up for reckoning now.

Mother’s Day has become my Day of the Dead. I am tempted just to cancel it now that my mum is not on the receiving end of my poems and gifts. Each year, I’d conjure up a surprise designed to coax a smile from her—that rare and wonderful occasion. If you got lucky, you might even elicit a laugh; my husband had the most success in that department—she thought he was terribly funny.

There is a photograph my brother-in-law, David, took which captures her in full explosive mirth, a keepsake of the sound I loved more than anything. Joy did not come easily to her, and when it did, it was swiftly snatched. Not that she ever complained. She just “got on with it” which invariably involved many hours in the kitchen, garden, and in front of the TV.

I catch myself each day wanting to tell her things; how I saved a man from a rip in the ocean last week; I made tofu taste just like feta cheese for a spinach pie and someone bloody stole my flowering cactus which took two years to blossom. And she’d “Please be careful,” “What did you add?” and “That’s awful,” along with all the mundanities of my life.

And what of all the questions only she could answer?

In preparation for Passover, I turned to her kneidlach recipe in the book my sisters and I put together for her 80th birthday.

“Eggs, matza meal, oil, salt, pepper, schmaltz,” it read.

Not a single measurement. I laughed out loud. She cooked by instinct—just as I do. (I couldn’t tell you how much oil, mustard, or honey I put in my salad dressing—I just keep tasting and adding ingredients until it’s right.)

So, what is left to celebrate now that the telling and asking part of our relationship has ended?

What remains are her free-range recipes to decipher. They will need me to listen and lean into the absences she left behind. Two or three eggs? A quarter cup of oil or half a cup? In that quiet unknowing, I have to raise her from the dead and feel all the ways in which she lingers—an intuition, a sensibility, an inclination toward the delicious and the slightly too salty.

Three days before she died, she stood beside me at the stove, bent over from nausea from the chemotherapy, as her ruby grapefruit marmalade bubbled on the stove. “How long must it cook for mom?” I asked. She shrugged and held out a spoon and said, “When it gets to this consistency, you know it’s ready.”

The Germans have a beautiful word, Eigenzeit, which means, “the time inherent to a process itself.” As it is with marmalade, so it is with grief.

Forget the clock. Don’t leave it to burn. Keep an eye on it. You’ll know when it’s done.

After her cancer diagnosis, she told my father, “I love my life.” And what was her life? Cooking, Judge Judy, a garden, her scaredy-cat Smudge, Friday night dinners with my sisters, daily calls with me, updates on the grandkids, reruns of Jane the Virgin and Kelly Clarkson’s show.

This year, I am tempted to leave Mother’s Day alone, like a wound that just needs time to heal, unpoked and unprovoked. Seeing other people with their mothers is bound to undo me.

But I do not want to be belittled by grief, or Grinched into despising birthdays, anniversaries, or days that are meant for rejoicing.

My fear of being separated from my mum has come to its final rest at last, and I know I must find my peace, even relief, in knowing, as Leonard Cohen sings, that I “will never have to lose (her) again.”

I no longer hold up the mountain of being her daughter. But I can celebrate the celebratable and surround myself with all the simple things she taught me that are beautiful. On Mother’s Day, I’ll wake for the sunrise, take my sorrow to the ocean, call her name to the sky, and read this poem by Ellen Bass aloud:

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
Thickening the air, heavy as water
More fit for gills than lungs,
When grief weights you like your own flesh
Only more of it, an obesity of grief,
You think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
Between your palms, a plain face,
No charming smile, no violet eyes,
And you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

If your heart is aching for the loss of anyone or anything that brought light into your world, I wish you love from all directions—a hug, breaking bread, chatting over FaceTime, or remembering the laughter you once shared.

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