This is my first Mother’s Day without my mother, Judy McCartney. She passed away in October at 85 after a lengthy but mostly pain-free struggle with a bum valve in her heart.
Mom disdained Mother’s Day. She rolled her eyes at anything smacking of drippy sentiment. She objected that the holiday was artificial and mercenary.
“I’ve got a bad attitude about Mother’s Day,” Mom would say. “It’s phony baloney, invented to sell flowers and greeting cards.”
I smile when I remember that tirade, and so many like it. She professed to have “a bad attitude” about many subjects, although never in a mean-spirited way. She tempered her outrage with plenty of self-deprecating irony.
This year, the memory also saddens me. I won’t be hearing those good-humored diatribes anymore.
Contrived or not, Mother’s Day reminds me how Mom’s departure leaves so many empty spaces in my life.
No more lively discussions of the latest political news, which she followed closely. Some targets of her “bad attitude” were typical for a liberal: Newt Gingrich and the war in Afghanistan. Some were quirky, such as the Army Corps of Engineers (“idiots destroying the wetlands”).
No more eating BLTs from Wagshal’s deli while watching the Redskins on television. She lived just six blocks from me in Bethesda, so it was easy to get together.
Born and raised in Michigan, Mom grew up on Big Ten football and knew the game. I heard many harangues against the pass-oriented West Coast offense, which Mom blamed for the Redskins’ difficulties pre-RGIII.
No more Sunday nights out, when we went to a restaurant and often to a movie. Mom was always up for a movie. My most successful Mother’s Day gift ever — yes, we did celebrate it — was taking her to see “The Big Lebowski.”
This Mother’s Day also arrives two weeks after my sister and I spent a long weekend clearing out Mom’s personal belongings before selling her condo. We encountered mementos that led me to reflect on the arc of her life.
One of my favorite photos of Mom, circa 1951, shows her at a newsroom telephone as a young reporter for the Lansing State Journal in Michigan. The image could have come straight from one of the era’s many movies featuring sassy women journalists.
Mom majored in journalism at Michigan State University. She married a journalist and gave birth to one — but the profession didn’t work for her.
That’s partly because, Hollywood notwithstanding, most females then were routinely assigned to the society and women’s pages. Mom would have preferred hard news.
In addition, she speculated later that she wasn’t sufficiently aggressive for the job. She was uncomfortable pressing for answers, she said, because “I never really felt it was any of my damned business.”
Instead, after raising my sister and me, and following my late dad’s career to Washington, Mom found another professional passion: library science. At age 49, she earned a 4.0 grade-point average en route to a master’s degree in the subject from Catholic University.
As a child, Mom had been “shushed” in the library so many times that she said her hometown librarian’s bones “rattled in the grave” when she received her diploma.
Mom worked for several federal government libraries, ending up at the law library of the general counsel of the Internal Revenue Service. She relished using clever reporters’ techniques to find expert witnesses and documents to help the government track down corporate tax cheats.
Perhaps Mom’s greatest accomplishment was building a new life for herself as a single person after her marriage to my father ended when she was in her mid-50s.
She developed an interest in opera and took courses in art history and Spanish. In going through her papers, I found dozens of pages of notes about Renaissance paintings and Spanish vocabulary.
She also took up bird-watching, partly because she liked the outdoors. It became her principal pastime.
She wasn’t competitive about it and didn’t bother keeping a “life list” enumerating the birds she’d spotted. But when my sister opened her bird books, we found Mom had kept careful track of the date, location and circumstances of each new bird she’d seen.
For me, those notations capture Mom’s striving to get the most out of life without making a show of it. Apart from the companionship and shared memories, that good example is the quality that I miss most today.
Despite what you always told us, Mom, yours was very much “a good attitude.”
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.