One year when we lived in Wisconsin, my kids and I walked to the local card shop. They were all in grade school, and Mother’s Day was coming up. “Look through these cards,” I told them, pointing to the Mother’s Day section. “When you find one that says how you feel, call me over and read it to me.” I stayed by the first-grader to help read him the difficult words. When the older three came to card they particularly liked , they called me over and read it to me. Each child found several worthy of reading aloud, including the youngest who found at least a dozen that suited him.
“Thank you very much for the wonderful cards. Now there’s no need to buy them,” I said as I herded the children out the door with no purchases. I shrugged an apology to the clerk. “I don’t want them spending their hard-to-come-by money on cards,” I said. I still have a lot of homemade cards from those years, which I treasure, but that year I felt downright smug!
Of the many mothers known personally to me, I can think of only one who savored Mother's Day without reservation. I worked next to her for several years and heard her preening and primping, almost like a bride-to-be, so as to present herself in the most favorable light at the family’s celebration of the event. She adored being matriarch of the family and explained to anyone who’d listen how privileged her grown children felt to trace their lineage from her—and how thrilled her in-law children were to have married into her clan. After Mother’s Day, she called co-workers to her desk to show us whatever gifts she’d received and phoned her friends (on company time) to share each minuscule detail of her fete.
While several of my acquaintances overtly abhor the event, the majority of us respond to holiday with mild apprehension or vague dread, wanting to be gracious to our grown children who remember, but generous to our children who don’t. The gaps that already exist in our society—generational, economic, self-righteousness—widen on this occasion. Haves and have-nots are pitted against one another in a new way: mothers whose offspring remember them on the day, and mothers whose offspring do not.
The retail sector does its best to promote need and greed among its guilt-ridden constituency of offspring. While some mothers may wish their children would do more for them on the second Sunday of May, others wish their children would do less—that is, less spending. Florists mark-up their arrangements and delivery charges. Extravagant packaging increases the price of Mom’s favorite candy. Hideous bud vases in the shape of porcelain women wearing brimmed hats and long skirts, each containing a single “fresh” rose, actually sell to adults! (I know because I saw it with my own eyes.) Mylar balloons at $4.50 apiece, decorated with puppies and kittens proclaiming “I LOVE MY MOM” cavort above my grocery store’s checkout stands. Enormous cellophane-wrapped baskets of bubble baths and talcum powders loom on the ends of aisles in pharmacies; plush animals wearing ribbons inscribed with filial adoration perch by cash registers at the hardware store.
Full page newspaper ads and store flyers arrive the week before Mother’s Day showing slender, sulky “moms” reclining in lacy bikini underwear or filmy negligees. I can’t help but wonder who the target audience is, who is being coaxed to buy undies for this occasion. Children with Oedipal complexes? Fathers who wish to jump the mothers? Or the mothers themselves, imagining themselves sirens when they aren’t wiping noses? Disappointments surely ensue; stretch marks and varicose veins can’t be airbrushed on the live recipients.
Telephone satellites get busy and stay busy from morning till night. Florists have their second largest day (after Valentine’s) in the seasonal cycle. Candy makers and card shops love the occasion. And only in America would merchants dare suggest that children—big or little—surprise their moms with 18k gold baubles costing $1,500—or rings studded with precious stones commemorating the equally precious dates of birth of themselves and their siblings.
For a mother, nothing takes the place of her child’s spontaneous hug, be it from a grownup or a toddler. Expressions of appreciation should not be prompted, prescribed like a drug, or purchased with Visa or AmEx cards. Real affection is best expressed freely and without a glance at the calendar. Most of us mothers would happily skip the folderol to simply hear, “I love you, Mom.”