When I was 7, I got kicked out of Brownies. The reason, as I understood it then, was that I had gone to a special Brownie feast out of uniform. The thing is, I had been in a rush, as usual, and had simply gone in my school clothes. Brown Owl told me to sit in another part of the room, out of the circle, where the important people who were visiting that evening wouldn’t see me. I sat on my own for two hours, forbidden to take part in the rituals and songs that made up this particular special night.
Afterward, she took me aside and informed me that if I wasn’t prepared to learn how to tie my tie properly and come to sessions with my uniform ironed and my shoes shined, well, perhaps Brownies could do without my small presence.
This was all a very long time ago, and I’m sure that any Brown Owl in the Sensitive Nineties would be sure to look into why one of her elves consistently appeared looking dishevelled, and was always unprepared for the annual cookie sale or any other of the numerous events on the Brownie calendar. What my own Brown Owl might have discovered was that my mother had recently been diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis, and was now in a wheelchair. Within a year, the normal order of our (until then) quite average family was tossed out the window, and such things as neatly ironed blouses, stockings without holes in them and even clean underwear went out the window as well.
I had forgotten about that night until recently, when I pondered my continuing resentment of Mother’s Day. I’m a mother myself now; why should it still bother me that there are women my age who can go shopping with their mothers, have them over for dinner or even (and this is the hardest thing of all to contemplate) get mad at them?
We – my sisters and I – could never get mad at our mother. She was a saint, and she was sick. Other girls might fight with their mothers, might downright hate them from time to time, but what kind of monster would hate a woman in a wheelchair, a woman confined for years to a chronic-care hospital, a woman who eventually went into a coma and died?
It’s the minutiae of life that break down when your mother gets sick, like having someone by your side at the annual mother-daughter banquet, or hearing a voice gently nag you about getting your homework done, or reminding you to take a dollar to school on Friday to pay for the outing to the science museum.
I don’t think it really dawned on me until I had children of my own just how much that happens in a house gets done because there is someone – usually a mother – making it all come together. Emptying the pockets of my son’s jeans at night after he’s fallen asleep, I find notes from the teacher reminding him of projects due (generally the next day) and parent-teacher meetings to take place at certain appointed times. What, I wonder, would happen if I weren’t here to discover these crumpled bits of paper, shoved into his pockets and immediately forgotten? It wouldn’t be the end of the world, I know. But if it happened all the time, if missing appointments and homework assignments and never being able to show up with your mother by your side became the natural order of things, what would it do to a child?
I know what it did to me. It created a small, anxious knot in the pit of my stomach that told me that I was always out of step with my schoolmates, always one step behind when it came to knowing how to act in the simplest situations. I remember standing at a friend’s kitchen table, holding a tomato, and wondering what on Earth I was supposed to do with it. I’d never tasted or prepared a fresh tomato and had no idea how to use it in a salad, something my friend thought was hilarious. I laughed, too, of course, but down deep I was humiliated; one more thing having a mother would have taught me.
By the time I was 12, my mother had become so sick she was completely bed-ridden, and spent the final four years of her life in hospital. My younger sisters and I saw her every Sunday afternoon, when my father wheeled her out into the visitors’ waiting room. We would spend an hour attempting to make conversation with this pale, fragile stranger whose speech was so distorted by the disease that my youngest sister once told me she had never understood a single word my mother ever said to her.
I was the fortunate one, I guess. As the eldest, I do have some memories of her. I remember standing on tiptoe to watch her make a cake – or is that only because I have an old photograph that tells me it happened? I do know that she took me once on a streetcar, and when we were getting off I went first and the doors closed on her and I stood there and wailed, thinking I’d been abandoned. The doors opened again immediately, and she stepped down and scooped me up, wanting to comfort me but embarrassed as well that I was making such a racket. Was it a premonition, I wonder? Did I know somewhere in my three-year-old soul that she would leave me one day, for good?
I ignored Mother’s Day until I had children of my own, and have spent years telling them, and my husband, that I really don’t care about it, it’s all just a huge marketing ploy on the part of the card companies. Underneath, though, I have huge expectations, and my children can never live up to them. No matter what they do for their mother on Mother’s Day, it’s never really enough, and I’ve finally come to accept that it never will be: What I want, on that particular day, is not a Mother’s Day card from my children, but a chance to give one to my own.
*This piece was originally written for The Globe and Mail and appeared on Friday, May 10, 1996.