The First Mother’s Day

by Jeff Oaks

If we forgot her birthday, it was fine, but if we forgot to call or send a card for Mother’s Day, we’d be killed, she always said. Murdered. Excommunicated. Made to suffer. The threat was half-joke, but both my brother and I felt the truth in it. It was the one day she wanted us to acknowledge her contribution to our lives, the enormous work she’d done as and the pride she felt in being a mother. She didn’t ask for much, she’d say, but this was important. Therefore it is in my blood to call my mother on Mother’s Day and ask her about her day and to talk politics and to remember something from the old days, something we both miss now or we both hate.

This will be the first Mother’s Day in which I don’t have a mother to call and chat with. She’s been dead for a little over a month now. I saw her body and kissed that forehead. We’ve sold her condo, we’ve divided up her IRA and bank accounts, and we’ve both gone back to our lives. Except that instead of a mother being there, what’s left is only an old impulse, the habit to call, and then the little shock of remembering, and then the putting the phone back in my jacket pocket.

There wasn’t the weeping I expected. I had several friends write to check on me, to make sure I was all right. My friend Jenny and I went out to brunch on Saturday on a whim, and the table next to us was clearly a mother and grandmother being taken out for an early Mother’s Day meal by a slightly surly about-my-age son who kept checking his phone while they talked to him. Knowing I’d likely be surrounded by other peoples’ mothers woke up that sadness suddenly: I’d never get to see her eat with her usual relish a meal again; I’d never get to make or hear her laugh again.

All day long today I thought of things to tell her, to recount to her. In the last year, since she couldn’t get around much, I felt like I was calling to tell her little stories about my life, almost as if I were reading to her. Partly I wanted her to know that I was all right, that I was safe and secure, that I was happy and healthy. I knew that was important to her. Partly I wanted her to know that I’d always need her; I often called to ask her a question about how to cook something. I worried about her feeling left out of my life, now that she’d never visit me again or get to spend more time with my dog Andy whom she had met once and loved.

How much do I owe her? Well, yes, there’s the whole life thing, which is not a simple cliche, since I came along as a kind of surprise she could have terminated. When I asked her why she didn’t, since it forced her to stay with my abusive father for another eighteen years, she said, “I felt I had more love to give.” She was otherwise my model for thinking, for how to think, for how to enjoy life. She was the reader I followed into libraries, into books. She occasionally wrote me excuses from school so we could play hooky together–most memorably at the Finger Lakes Race Track, where she’d give me $20 to bet. Since my high school guidance counselor was always there, sometimes with the district superintendent, we never got found out. She was a fun mom. My friends called her MadDog Marilyn for her habit of going the wrong way down one-way streets. All my friends liked her. At least one came over for heart to heart talks with her when I was away at college, when his own parents virtually abandoned him. She paid my tuition to college, which although it was relatively little those days because I had a scholarship from the state, was still something she could have done without on her secretary’s salary. She was always there to come back to from school. She even gave me the down payment for the house I live in, and with the very smart condition (although it made me crazy then) that the house be in my name only. After a long relationship broke up, she drove up and helped me figure out how to live by myself again; she was a master of the art of the happy solitude. She cheered me up when I was tired. She worried over me, sometimes needlessly but always with an eye on my safety. And in the last year when I visited more often, she let me hug her when she got scared. She certainly made the details after her death easy for my brother and me, setting things up so that nothing needed to go through probate, so that all we’d have to do is sign our names and get what she felt was rightfully ours and not the government’s or some lawyer’s. We kept telling her not to worry about it so much, that we’d take care of things, that we were grown ups and she’d trained us well. She’d look us in the eyes and shake her head. “Listen,” she’d say, and then explain to us yet again what we were to do. I have a folder of things about IRAs she printed off the Internet.

I realized the other day I still have a dozen or so messages from her on my voicemail. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with those traces. I haven’t yet played one back. She herself would have wanted me to get on with my life, not get bogged down with sadness. But the sadness is also a measure of my love for her, my pride at having gotten to be her child all these years. She was a terrific mother, which I told her every year.