Mother’s Day is a national holiday. Too bad for moms it’s not on a Monday so they can have a day off from work.
I loved my mom, but I had problems with Mother’s Day. It’s a greeting card holiday. The whole point is to buy Mom a nice present, right? You want to be a perfect daughter, but what does Mom want?
“Anything,” she always said brightly. Or, if pressed, “Nothing.”
Oh, dear. We were both collectors, but did not have the same taste. With me it was always books (and dust); with her it was the bounty from Hobby Lobby, sidewalk sales, Gifted, and craft fairs. I tried giving “anything”: embroidered handkerchiefs from Woolworth’s a la Little Women (we didn’t believe in sewing on buttons, let alone embroidering), and the much-advertised Yardley’s Eau de Love spray, with its signature Donovan song (“Wear Your Love Like Heaven”), not quite aimed at women of my mother’s age. Later I got better at gifts: decorative playing cards (she was a bridge fiend), pantsuits ordered from catalogues (sometimes they fit, sometimes not) and studio photos of me in the pre-selfie century ( though I hated having my picture taken). I also sent flowers as a desperate gesture of filial love.
She didn’t like flowers much. In fact, she didn’t like the outdoors much. She complained that her neighbor’s wild flowers were “weeds,” bringing down the price of her property. (Later she and the gardener became friends.) Her knickknacks filled the house and caused me much embarrassment as a child. My best friend laughed hysterically over the JFK bust, and her highbrow parents, who didn’t know any knicknack collectors, referred to me as “the normal child in the Addams family.” Well, I always thought Morticia Addams, the mother of the monstrous TV family, was very pretty, and come to think of it Mom’s hair was rather like that! So maybe it was a backhanded compliment.
I often wish my life were like Mom’s. Life to death in the same town, seeing the same neighbors and friends from childhood to old age. Women of my generation were gypsies and left town to find work. As a young woman she and her friends worked in offices and went to dances and vacationed in Clear Lake and Chicago, where they stayed at the Palmer House. She met my father in Clear Lake, which was, as far as I can figure out, a resort then.
There were some rocky periods when she found out I lived with a boyfriend. What a lecture I got! But it all smoothed out eventually. We learned to keep it light and went to brunches and the mall. And we became close at the end of her life.
So, Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and I hope the Yardley Eau de Love spray, obviously not marketed at women in their thirties, is finally appropriate in Heaven!
And here are a few excellent motherhood novels I’ve blogged about. Great summer reading!
- Gail Godwin’s A Mother and Two Daughters, the story of three women entangled by family ties and daily conflicts that make it hard to see one another clearly. It is told from alternating points of view and in distinctive voices: Nell Strickland, a happily married woman who lives with her husband, Leonard, a lawyer, in a house with a view of the mountains in North Carolina; Cate, her wildly rebellious daughter, is an English professor at a college in Iowa, who has been married twice and is ending an affair with the Resident Poet; and Lydia is the dullest, a 36-year-old housewife and mother of two who leaves her husband for two reasons: (a) to take a lover and (b) to go back to school.
- Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman (1986), which won the Nebula Award and was billed as SF, reads like literary fiction, with a touch of mysticism. The setting is an archaeological dig on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. There are two heroines: the chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Elizabeth Butler, an archaeologist and expert on Mayan civilization, and her daughter, Diane, who was raised by her father but after his death shows up unnanounced at Elizabeth’s dig.
- Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby revolves around Jess Speight, an unmarried anthropologist whose child, Anna, has developmental problems. After Anna’s birth, Jess switches her focus in anthropology from Africa to England and embarks on a career of freelance journalism so she can care for Anna at home. The narrator, Nelli,e is fascinated by Jess’s refusal to tell the father, possibly a married anthropology professor, if indeed he is her lover, because Nellie is not sure whether he exists or whether Jess made him up. Anna is an easy baby, but when her developmental difficulties become evident and Jess must take counsel from a doctor, we are reminded of Drabble’s early novel, The Millstone, in which the unmarried narrator, a scholar, has a baby who needs surgery, and she must navigate the health system, eventually playing the upper-class card so her baby will get good care.
- Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, a brilliant novel about five decades in the lives of the Blair family, Packer asks questions about the American family: is the “bad mother” responsible for all her children’s woes? Is she even necessary when her husband, a saintly pediatrician, is the perfect parent? The women at the group are no-holds-barred angry about the artist Penny Blair’s withdrawal from her family. Having seen many styles of parenting, some much worse than Penny’s, I suggest that Bill, who responds to every crisis with caring questions and psychoanalytical language, is also part of the problem. But censure of Penny is the order of the day.
- Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton a gorgeous, lyrical novel about a complicated mother-daughter relationship. The narrator, Lucy Barton, escaped a harrowing, impoverished childhood through a college education. She reinvented herself as a wife, mother, and writer in New York. During a hospitalization, her mother visits her and they reconcile. And this has a huge effect on Lucy’s writing. Possibly this is the best book published in 2016.