We weren’t much for celebrating birthdays in our family. Oh, occasionally, there would be a cake and I do remember one party with an assortment of kids around our dining room table. But it was only once. It’s a family’s mom who organizes things like birthdays and if she’s unhappy or not well or preoccupied, not a lot of celebrating goes on.
And because my mother was frequently sad and seemingly living in her mind somewhere else besides in our house, birthdays were small; not forgotten, no, just small. Later, when I had my own kids who were spending their time with friends whose parents let them pin the tail on live donkeys and gave everyone hot air balloon rides for their birthdays, I realized how minimalist my birthday training had been. Once, after I’d baked a chocolate sheet cake and covered it with Pillsbury frosting for my 8-year old daughter’s birthday, my boyfriend at the time wrote the words “INSTITUTIONAL CAKE” on it when I wasn’t looking. After I’d put the sugar letters from the grocery store spelling out her name, I had to agree. My birthday making was not only small but crummy as well.
My mother deserved so much better, though. So when I was growing up I endeavored to never forget her birthday. Anxiety about possibly forgetting would grip me for days before. That and not finding the right present for her. The last thing I remember giving her for her birthday was a flat of pansies for her garden. And there is probably no gift that could have been more appropriate. So like her, so modest, so delicate, shunning the sun, preferring to be small and close to the ground, the pansies were her.
You understand by now that I loved my mother though I never understood her and cannot even now describe her to anyone else. She grew up in an era when opportunities for women were almost non-existent. She wanted to be a nurse but her father said that would be unladylike and sent her to business school instead. There she met my father, married at the age of 20, and had three children. She worked with him in our Ben Franklin store practically her whole life – at least when she wasn’t laid low by depression. Maybe that wasn’t the life she planned or wanted but it was the one she had. She never talked about regrets but then again I never asked. When she was around to ask, I didn’t know it mattered what she had dreamt about when she was young. Now it does but it’s too late.
After she died, my father, on many occasions, recounted her descent into the long, deep well of Alzheimer’s Disease. He’d always end up by saying, “She was always so smart.” And she was. You can see that in this picture. Her gaze, her glasses, her matter of factness. She tailored every stitch of herself, inside and out, to be clean and classic. The sorrow that she had, the thoughts and feelings that kept her laying in a dark room all day so often while I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about those things. She never described them. She was just so sad so much of the time.
I miss my mother. I miss her standing in the kitchen with her heels kicked off, leaning against the sink, smoking a Benson and Hedges (she only smoked in the kitchen because it was unladylike anywhere else). I miss her tucked in shirt and pencil skirt with the ever-present belt, how slim and finished she always was. I miss her mystery and wish I had tried harder to solve it.
I really do – today, on what would have been her 95th birthday, I miss my mom.