A curious feature of Mother’s Day is the way it is spelled. The commercial forces that help drive the popularity of the holiday sometimes spell it Mothers Day. When advertising greeting cards, flowers, and candy it is probably productive to give the impression that this is a day to celebrate all mothers. But the originator of Mother’s Day (Anna Jarvis in 1908) was quite insistent that it should be spelled as a singular possessive because she wanted people to celebrate a single person - their own mother - “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”
Learning this shook my understanding of Mother’s Day. I was among the millions who assumed that Mother’s Day was a holiday for all mothers - Mothers Day. Because I am who I am, I figured that meant ALL mothers. For many decades I tipped my hat to the mothers of obnoxious puppies and noisy piglets. I marveled at the way mother robins held tight on their eggs in the face of bull snakes and dive-bombed marauding barn cats that stalked their chicks. The tenderness of a mother buffalo licking her newborn calf and nudging it up onto its feet. I figured that the abundant life of spring was the reason Mother’s Day was in May.
The only time I was ever around a young, human mother was sixty years ago when I was really too young to realize all she did for me. As a teenager, a young man, and finally an adult, I was very close to my mother - Inez Woods O’Brien. I loved and respected her very much but I never completely understood her role in my life until my adopted daughter had a baby. They live on the ranch with us and for the last two years I have watched Jilian closely and seen my mother in her actions, her eyes, and her touch. Now I see what my mother did for me in those years before I was old enough to understand.
It is easy for me to remember her encouraging me to sing in the grade school choir. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table helping me with my homework. The day I broke my arm and she gathered me up, compound fracture and all, and drove me to the hospital. I remember her taking charge, seeing me into the operating room, standing at the head of the gurney as the anesthesia closed in around me. Not until the darkness began to restrict my vision did she give me over to the doctors. The last thing I saw was my mother, standing above me, growing faint, wobbling, and finally slipping down and out of sight. She hit the floor in a dead faint, but not before I was safe. When I began to drive, the light was always on when I turned the corner to our house. If I looked quickly I’d see her disappear from the window. When I came into the house she would pretend to be asleep. Though she had never gone to college herself, she counseled me through high school, undergraduate school, and beyond. I feel her wisdom to this day.
She was always known for her sense of humor, her glamour, and her singing. Over the years, more than one of my friends fell in love with her. On my writing desk there is a single framed picture of Mom. It is not of a vibrant young woman like Jilian that watches me from behind the glass.
In the picture she is in her early eighties. She is in the assisted living apartment where she lived the last few years of her life. She is an old lady, but you have to look close to see it. She’s smiling and wearing a chic, tiger-striped jacket over a black blouse and slacks. There is an empty cocktail glass on the counter beside her and a half a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch rests on her knee.
Because I now know the rest of the story, I know that many years before she must have held me the way I have seen Jilian hold her baby. She must have radiated that same exhausted beauty. She must have taught me my colors and the names of animals that I have never forgotten. I wish I could have seen her picking up the demolished house when I was finally asleep. Now I can imagine her suffering through the potty training, and standing silently at my bedroom door, watching to be sure my tiny chest was still rising and falling with a steady rhythm. It is hard to believe that I have lived for sixty-eight years without this knowledge, sixty-eight Mother’s Days without knowing that this is a day for ONE person. Every time I look at the picture on my desk I want to step through the glass and join her. I want to wrap her up in my arms and sob.