Hallmark estimates that 113 million cards are exchanged for Mother’s Day, the third-largest card-sending holiday in the United States. Since I don’t see a card for my situation, a daughter whose mother still nags her from heaven, I leave the store with tears ready to explode down my cheeks, without purchasing the Advil I had come in for.
My mother died 12 years ago. So what was I even doing in the card aisle? A combination of habit, masochism and wishful thinking. I know I’ll come away devastated, but a sense of duty outweighs self-protection.
Before Bernice Amatenstein’s death on April 10, 2005, from a massive heart attack, on the second Sunday in May you’d find me at the ranch house in Little Neck, Queens, where I’d lived until age 20. Despite being in my 40s, walking through the door I’d be jolted back to surly adolescence by my 70-something mom criticizing everything from my hairstyle to my clothes to my profession to my pet, a black cat. Yet there was nowhere I’d rather be on that day than with the pint-sized, ample-mouthed woman who’d birthed me.
There were two years I almost didn’t make it to Little Neck.
Near-Miss 1: On May 2, 1992, a bright Saturday morning, I felt an urge to pick up a card to mail in advance since I’d be out of the country the following weekend. Crossing the street to the Hallmark store, a car knocked me down, rolling over my ankle. An ambulance ferried me to the nearest facility that handled trauma patients – alas, a substandard hospital. The intern begged me to let him call my family to have me transferred. For hours I resisted, reluctant to cause my mother any anguish. Finally, I relented and soon she was by my side, waving her Amex to charge an ambulance to North Shore Hospital in Manhasset. There she convinced the head of orthopedics to do what turned out to be an eight-hour surgery that saved my ankle. That Mother’s Day, instead of gallivanting across the globe, I was back at the ranch house, not just living with my parents, but recuperating in their bed!
Near-Miss 2: I’ve had several long-term relationships, including a terrible marriage followed by a four-year liaison with a loving, emotionally generous and trustworthy man. A Jewish mother’s dream – uh, except for the fact that Paul was Irish Catholic – a “sin” that drove my mother to doggedly attempt to break us up. Her most elaborate gambit was signing me up for a service that did matchmaking for adult Jewish children without their knowledge. I was angry, but not enough to boycott Mother’s Day.
Paul and I did eventually end our relationship – a decision that had little to do with mom’s campaign. Years after the split, I opened a letter from her with the line: If I’d known he’d be your last chance I’d never have made you leave him. I called her, steaming, and told her not to expect me in Little Neck with Mother’s Day flowers.
Of course, my threat was hot air. Where else would I be?
The first Mother’s Day after her death, I had no energy for anything but wailing in bed and eating pop tarts, which reminded me of childhood. My eldest niece rightly wanted the family together. I met my sister, her husband and two daughters at an Italian restaurant. My father, suffering from Alzheimer’s but acutely aware he’d lost his beloved wife, completed our new family unit. We listlessly twirled spaghetti around our forks, talked about mom and tried to ignore the laughter and love emanating from other tables.
Each subsequent Mother’s Day, my go-to plan has been avoiding social media, restaurants, the outdoors, life in general. This is pathetic, especially considering that I’m a mental health practitioner who regularly cajoles patients into taking positive steps toward dealing with painful realities.
When I emailed Hope Edelman, the author of “Motherless Daughters” for advice on surviving the second Sunday in May, she told me about the Motherless Daughters luncheons she started 21 years ago, where women gather to honor their mothers who are no longer living.
I love the idea of honoring rather than trying to wipe out memories of the many years I was fortunate enough to have my crazy-making mother in my life. So many people I know had no mothers, abusive mothers, or lost their mothers at an early age. I had a lioness of a mom, able to command the head of orthopedics at a major hospital on a busy Saturday night to drop everything and tend to her cub.
So on May 14, I will have my version of a Motherless Daughters luncheon with a few friends whose mothers have also died. I will carry mom’s white plastic handbag. One strap is hanging forlornly and the bag is dimpled and dirty. But it reminds me of her. Inside is her change purse, plastic rain hat and a 2002 photo ID.
At the restaurant, amid the families toasting their living mothers, my friends and I will likely cry and laugh as we share stories about our mothers. My mom is no longer around, but she left a legacy of strength and spirit. That is eminently toast-worthy.