As my mother died in 2006, I can no longer wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. Not that she would have particularly appreciated it – she didn’t see the point in designating certain days to recognize and celebrate special people, events, or ideas. (If you wanted to give a gift, then give it – why make the recipient wait for a certain day? Why celebrate freedom or love on just one day rather than the entire year?) She also didn’t think her mothering skills were anything to celebrate, and in all honesty I couldn’t argue with that.
But I didn’t want to have my thoughts on Mother’s Day primarily of negative memories. So I decided to think of some pleasant memory from my childhood of time my mother and I spent together. I was somewhat dismayed that it took me a while to think of one – I’m sure there must be others, less vivid in my memory because of their ordinariness. But I did remember a weekend my mother and I spent together, just the two of us, camping in northwestern Connecticut.
My sister was already in college, and my father took a trip to Germany with a delegation from his church, as part of a partnership they had with a church in Purley, England and with the Gedächtniskirche in Speyer, Germany. My mother was very unhappy at the thought of spending so many days apart from him, and I thought that a camping trip would help. My father had always been the organizer of our camping trips, but I was sure my mother and I could manage on our own.
We did have to make some changes in our equipment. My father always handled the gasoline lantern and stove, and I had learned from my mother to be afraid of handling the gasoline or the equipment that used them. We would cook over a charcoal fire, I decided – without the aide of starter fluid. And we could use flashlights for light, and go to bed early enough so that we didn’t need them for very long.
We stopped at a camping store called Mickey Finn’s on the way to the campground. (I naively assumed that it was owned by a man named Mickey Finn; I was embarrassed when my mother pointed out that that was highly unlikely.) Besides buying some replacement tent pegs (plastic ones that made very nice replacements for the old bent metal ones), we found a battery-operated lantern that took care of our lighting needs.
Unlike many of our family camping trips, we arrived in full daylight, and between the two of us managed to set up our tent (without having to use the lantern or worry that we were waking up anyone in the neighboring tents as we pounded the stakes in). I had bought pork steaks for dinner, and I set about preparing the charcoal in the fireplace provided in our campsite. It was more difficult without starting fluid, but I eventually got the fire going.
I had seriously underestimated how long it would take to cook the meat, however. Perhaps it was my inexperience cooking with charcoal, perhaps the fact that an open-air fireplace retains much less of its heat than the enclosed oven I was used to at home. In any case, I spent at least an hour tending those pork steaks, while my mother walked for exercise upwind of the smoke (and there was a lot of smoke).
When they were finally cooked to our satisfaction, they were delicious. Probably it was the fresh air and our hunger, but I thought that all that smoke must have also added considerably to their taste. (They were fresh pork, but reminded me of smoked meat.) I decided, however, never to cook pork steaks that way again – they might not come out as well – and I wouldn’t have to breathe in all that smoke again.
After supper we went for a walk, taking our new battery lantern. I have vague memories of a campfire and singing, or a beach (were we near a lake?), of some young children we met, and a wooden walkway. But the memories are jumbled somehow, so that I’m not sure if I’m remembering walking with my mother, or with my own child on some more recent excursion.
The fact is, I had to take care of my mother to some extent, although not in the same ways I had to take care of my sons. The weekend is mostly a happy memory, one of the times when my mother and I enjoyed doing something together, and accomplished something on our own that we hadn’t done before – and without any arguments or her bursting into tears and worrying that no one loved her.
But it is a bittersweet memory, in that even then I did not feel mothered by her, but rather had to take care of her. Perhaps that aspect of it is exaggerated in my mind, but I do remember many times over the years that she commented on how our roles were reversed. (I was somewhat relieved when she finally decided that I was not a reincarnation of her mother, because a psychic had told her that there was a woman’s spirit who accompanied her everywhere, along with two children, so she concluded that they were her mother and her two miscarriages.)
That is probably why it is one of my goals in life that my own sons will be able to face adulthood with confidence. I want them to be able to approach marriage and parenthood themselves not as my mother did, desperate to receive love and affection, but with the assurance that they have been loved and can freely give love to the families they will one day have. And if I manage to do that, I’m sure in some way it will have been due to lessons I learned from my mother, even if they were not taught in quite the usual manner.