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Last weekend I traveled to my mom’s house for a visit. The only thing unusual about this was the fact that it was the first time I’d seen her in more than a year; it was the resumption of a long-standing tradition, a tradition that the pandemic had suspended. May 14 is my birthday, which means that it always falls close to Mother’s Day (sometimes even on the same day). So, long ago, I established the habit of an annual mid-May visit for a joint celebration of the two occasions.
I’ve always thought the conjunction of these two May days was appropriate, because they are two sides of the same coin. Of course, I didn’t realize that when I was a kid; back then, my birthday was all about me, about getting older and getting a bunch of presents. But now I realize that I am not the person who deserves recognition on that day: where my birth is concerned, I had the easy part. More to the point, I no longer expect any gifts from my mom, because I have come to understand how very much she has already given me.
In 1941, the world was a darkening place, and even as a little girl, my mom could perceive that. Her parents had weathered the Great Depression relatively well: her father was never unemployed, and they always had enough. But their marriage was an unhappy one: they fought, and they sometimes lived apart; he drank, and it seems clear in retrospect that he suffered from depression. Two months before Pearl Harbor, he had apparently had enough, and he ended his own life.
My mother was the one who found his body. She was seven years old.
When Mom was older and became engaged to a young man she knew in college, her mother strongly disapproved. I can’t imagine she had any reason to dislike him specifically; rather, I think she had been so embittered by her own sad marriage that she disapproved of the very idea. My parents had to wait until my dad turned 21 so they could marry without parental consent. The wedding arrangements were kept quiet, and I’ve heard stories about how one of their friends stood sentry at the church entrance, ready to sound the alarm if my grandmother approached.
As a result of this forbidden marriage, my mom was effectively disowned by her mother. Mom and Dad finished college and went to grad school; Dad did two years in the Army; their first two children were born; and through all of this, my mom had no contact at all with her mother. It wasn’t until ten years had passed that a cautious reconciliation took place, but this came almost too late: by then my grandmother was already suffering from undiagnosed cancer. She died about a year later. This was right around the time I was born.
So that was the life my mom had lived before I came along. Here’s the thing: as a child, I had no idea about any of it. I had an idyllic childhood, although as a child I didn’t realize it could be otherwise. I grew up in a stable family with two loving and attentive parents who guided us, supported us, corrected us when necessary, and trusted us. I never went through a rebellious phase because I had nothing to rebel against. And for 57 years, my mom has been a sounding board and confidante. Whenever anything important happens in my life, she’s still the first one I want to tell.
So when I think about how she grew up, and compare it to the life she (and my dad) gave me, I am more grateful than I can say. I don’t mean to suggest that my mother’s early life was all misery, but it was hardly ideal. She grew up without a father, and yet she chose for her life partner a man who became the best father one could hope for. Her own mother failed to show support and understanding, and she found those qualities in herself, in abundance.
So that’s what she gave me. In giving me birth, she gave me my life; but more than that, she selflessly gave me the best childhood I could have asked for. Some people would point to a background like hers and use it as an excuse for their own failings, but it seems that my mom made a deliberate decision to give her children exactly the kind of childhood she had been denied. There are many kinds of strength, but I have come to understand that my mom — all 100 pounds of her — is probably the strongest person I have ever known.
That’s why I visit in mid-May, because those two May days — my birthday and Mother’s Day — remind me of everything she did for me, and how I can never thank her enough. Not that she would expect me to.Published in