I attended my first funeral in over a decade this year. Despite the summer humidity and sudden downpour at the cemetery, the scene was familiar. Fifteen years prior, on a grim February afternoon, I stood in this same spot, with boots sinking into the wet muck and hands grasped with those of my mother and grandmother — a sad line of red rover for the grandfather who had crossed over. On this August day however, it was her turn, my grandmother, to join her other half and leave me standing with one free hand. And now we were two, my mother and I, and the grip became fiercer, a sweaty-palmed promise to carry each other through this and the months and years to follow.
And now Mother’s Day is upon us and the weather has warmed. My kids have already begun the school projects that will lead to handprints and lace-papered hearts and Crayola sunflowers with their faces smiling from the center. All the while, my own mother faces the holiday for the first time in her life as one of the motherless, as one who has known that love and lost it and must now remember. So I write to her and to all the mothers who will be grasping for that hand to hold.
To mothers of the young:
I know you will find pictures on your phone, on your fridge, on your Facebook timeline that will bring you face-to-face with the one you miss. I know you will wake up tired but smile on this May day when your children bring you burnt pancakes in bed. I know you will praise whatever gift they give you, handmade, store-bought, or tackle hugs. I know you will kiss their heads and smell their kid smells — the sweet sweat, and warm breaths, and baby shampoo. I know you will help them dress and issue reminders of please and thank you when you have your celebratory meal. I know you will mother them as you always do even as your heart contracts with the need to be mothered too.
I know you will not let them see all the tears you want to shed at the thought of the woman who went before you. I know you will have snippets of conversation with her in your head as you walk through the moments of this day, more momentous somehow in the echo of her absence.
I know you will step away at some point, take those fast and shallow breaths that precede tears and then cry like the kid you wish you still were. It’s okay. We all need to cry like that sometimes. Kids know how to do it right, with the snot and hiccups and red face that leaves you wrung out, but cleansed.
And then I know you will smile again for the little hands who come to check on you. I know you will end this day the same way it began, the same way they all begin and end — with kisses and pajamas and warm bodies to soothe. I hope you too will be soothed. I hope the caresses and bedtime songs will also work in reverse, loosening your limbs and mind and heart in nighttime meditation so that you can let this day pass with both its joy and sting.
To the mothers of the mothers,
I know you will find pictures in your attic, in your albums, in your bedside table that you will hold a little longer, tracing the outlines of a life you wish you could rewind. I know you will want to call your children, but will wait until they call you — until their breakfasts in bed and homemade cards and morning snuggles have all been done, because that’s how you mother now, with patience and understanding of the ceremonies that you too performed so long ago.
I know you will smile through the phone while your children try to talk over the sounds of the laughter or fighting or tears on their end. I know you will be happy for their happiness. I also know the silence will ring louder when the conversation ends, when the phone returns to its cradle, when the memories fall backward even as life and the day move forward.
I know you will also talk to her, your mother, and tell her all the things you would have said if you could have made that same call today. I know, as the day proceeds that you will play each role, the mother, the grandmother — and yes, the kid who misses her mother. It’s okay. You can be her too. And when night comes, I hope you will let it pass with a nod to the many Mother’s Days that have gone before and the ones to come.
To all the mothers on this day who are living that juxtaposed life of motherless mother, I want you to know that you are not alone and you do not have to fill just one role. You can cry like a kid. You can miss the hand you no longer hold even while you hold the hands of children young or old. You can be the woman in the line of red rover crying out to the other side even as you stand on this one because Mother’s Day is a day of honor and honor is about both celebration and remembrance.