At the memorial service for the poet Miller Williams, a service held a month ago at the Fayetteville, Arkansas public library, I met his daughter, singer/songwriter/musician Lucinda Williams. It turned out she knew of one of my more obscure and long ago cookbooks, and she began telling me the dishes she made from it… “And those vegetable fritters? I must've made them 100 times." Embarrassingly, I could barely remember those vegetable fritters.
This was after the memorial proper. We were upstairs by then, in a large sunny room, at the sort of improvised reception that is part of these occasions often. We were standing by a table of very nice hors d’oeuvres, catered by Bordolino’s, and we continued talking. Lucinda said to me, “You know what’s strange? You know when I cried? I cried the day my father told me he was through writing poetry, that he could no longer do it. So far I haven’t cried at all since his actual death, but I cried that day.”
I said, “Doesn’t seem strange to me. The day my mother’s caregivers told me she could no longer eat solid food, that they had to purée everything, I went upstairs and cried on and off for hours. Mind you, she didn’t have a problem with it! She didn’t even know she wasn’t getting solid food anymore, she liked the purées, and they were easier for her to swallow. But, all those meals we’d eaten together…”
Lucinda nodded. I took a piece of broccolini, she spread some goat cheese on a cracker. Who knew how long we would be able to write songs, or poems, or eat broccolini? Neither of us, certainly. But that there would be an end point, well, that was clear.
Loss. What are we going to do with it? Because, we’re going to have it, so we might as well think about it. Because the nature of life is, you get given things — not just objects but people, and not just people but feelings for them, such as love and ambivalence — you get given things, but only on a temporary basis.
Our own lives, and the lives of everyone and everything we love: loans, not permanent endowments. No telling when those loans’ll be called in, either, or how.
I can tell you this: I've lost some people I love suddenly – to accident, to suicide, to unlooked-for out-of-the-blue cardiac arrest.
And I've lost other people I love gradually: to old age and decline, a predictable cessation (though never predictable as to the precise timing).
As the one left behind (for now, so far, at least), I can tell you this: gradual is easier for the person left behind, or has been for me. The tears are spread out over a longer time. The process feels natural and more comprehensible. You have some time to get used to it, sort of. The grief is anticipatory, a flowing brook which sometimes swells to a river, but is never, as with sudden death, a tsunami on an ordinary day at the beach, sweeping away within minutes first beach umbrellas, then cabanas, sunbathers, toddlers with pails and shovels — then everything familiar gone. Oh, I’ll take gradual letting go to sudden desolation every time. Though, as everyone will tell you, “It’s never easy.”
And I can tell you this. Everyone who doesn't die young will someday have a motherless Mother’s Day.
Mothering … Days
If, that is, you take “mother” to mean your literal embodied mother, the physical being who raised you and who probably (unless you were adopted, or raised by a stepmother) grew you in her own body. That mother, like all of us, arrives, is here for awhile, and leaves.
This is my second motherless Mother’s Day, in this literal sense, and I am off to spend it with a friend whose mother died only last week, making it her first motherless Mothers Day, and, that death being so recent, an especially difficult one.
But I am not a literalist.
What I loved about my mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, remains with me forever. In this sense, not the looking-down-from-heaven sense, she is always with me. And what I did not love about her, what was difficult for many of the years of our relationship, though not at the end, is not only forgiven but more than forgiven. It is used, utilized, it has become an inextricable part of what and who I am, and I now view the once-tough parts of our loving with as much gratitude as the tender portions.
Even when my mother was alive, I had problems with Mother’s Day. It seemed to me excessively sentimental and excessively biological. What, after all (unless you have fertility problems) is easier than breeding? Reptiles breed. Cats have kittens. Squirrels have baby squirrels. I can’t enshrine an act of biology in itself as having meaning and love, because only some of those — by no means all — who have babies actually love those babies and do right by them.
Some mothers are simply not very interested in their children. Some couldn't care less. Some are interested only in how their offspring reflect on them. Some mothers will always celebrate the mean-spirited son who is an attorney more than the son who is a gentle house-painter, or the son who is a mean-spirited house-painter more than the gentle attorney.
I think meaning and love come, if they do, not with the act of giving birth, but with the acts, plural and endless of mothering. Of nurturing and nourishing, protecting, encouraging, growing, loving, introducing, educating, listening, “being there” as long and in as many dimensions as possible, and also knowing when to let go and leave alone. Of loving that small, then larger, then eventually adult person who came through your portals as the individual he or she is, separate from your dreams for him or her. Part of a parent's job description, I believe, must be to plan for that job's obsolescence.
And this kind of mothering does not have much to do with biology, a process which goes on more or less on its own (squiggly viable sperm, fertile egg, good timing, contact, bang: the species is reproduced again).
Of course biology gives most parents an attachment to their offspring, but this is not true mothering. This kind of mothering requires choice, an endless series of choices, active participation, judgment calls and compassion without end.
And, in my view, there are three important points about mothering:
1. Everyone and everything needs it, and
2. You don’t have to have given birth to do it. Heck, you don’t even have to be female! And,
3. When it comes to this expanded view, why limit recognition to one day? This is the same aggravation I have about Earth Day: what, do we live on Jupiter the other 364 days of the year? Surely the vastness of what mothering brings deserves more than brunch and a bouquet of flowers, which, however well meant and well-received, is just kind of… perfunctory.
Perhaps one reason I feel this so keenly, one reason sentimental Mother’s Day stuff makes me break out in a rash, is because I cannot participate in the other side of the equation. I did not have children; I was biologically unable (thank you, Dalkon Shield).
Yet: I worked as a visiting writer in the schools for decades; I still do, occasionally. I wrote children’s books; I still do. I am a generous, eccentric, sort of Auntie Mame-ish “Cres-Aunt” to many of my friends’ children. When I was sixteen and living on my own, I took in a street kid named Donald, the young child of feckless hippies — a perfect example of my view that breeding-is-not-mothering — and lived with him for eight or nine months (a story told in my novel To Take a Dare).
And in the last decade of my mother’s life (which ended on November 19, 2013, when she was 98 years old and I 60) I spent increasingly large amounts of time with her, and, I believe, mothered her (an extraordinary journey, stories of which I have written both here and on Facebook).
Then there is my work as a small scale environmentalist, my wholly inadequate but persistent attempts to act in a manner which protects and nurtures our planet, so often called Mother Earth (though, if one is going to be parental and anthropomorphic about it, I think Mother-Father Earth would be more accurate — which dittos my view on God: if He exists as such, surely He is She as much as He; but I digress).
I look at all this and I sometimes, not often, think, reprising Sojourner Truth, “And ain’t I a mother?”
Then I think of the childless women who shaped my life and indulged me in various acts of mothering.
My Aunt Dot, glamorous, generous, proper in an eccentric fashion (I used to say she was the white sheep of the family) who not only took me to the requisite Disneyland, but to plays,
the ballet, and the Greek Games at Hunter College.
Miss Kay, the neighbor (a retired teacher) who taught me how to cook and instilled a love of baking that lasts to this day and who was the first person I knew who raised a garden from which you could actually eat (corn on the cob! fresh raspberries!), and with whom I lived when my parents went off to Europe for a month.
Virginia Carey, 76 years old to my 18, my mentor in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, with whom I drank tea in impossibly delicate Japanese china cups (“We’re going to be ladies if it kills us,” she announced to me the first time she put such a cup in front of me, no doubt reading on my face my horror that I might break said cup.)
Elsie Freund, another Eureka Springs mentor, a painter and jewelry designed and peace activist, who taught me, among other things, to, “Stay fluid!” as she once directed me in no uncertain terms, when she saw me crying about her and her husband, the painter and WPA artist Louis Freund, leaving Eureka to move into assisted living.
For that matter, I think of Louis, and my late father, Maurice Zolotow, and my friend George West, and my late extraordinarily sweet husband Ned Shank.
I think of Miller Williams, whose generosity as a person, a writing mentor, and a poet, blessed my life in these three ways, and continues to even though he has vacated the earth. Here is another poem of his, one read aloud at his memorial by another poet, Billy Collins.
When I Am Dead, My Dearest
Sing what you want to sing. Theologize.
Let anyone who wants to lie tell lies.
What will I care, back in the past tense
with no ambition and not a gram of sense,
back where I was before a fear and a wish
joined to form a sort of finless fish
that learned to walk and have lips and smile?
I will go there to wait an endless while,
and neither think that wrong nor wish it right,
more than a rock in darkness hopes for light.
You will say my name, but less with years,
the children less than you and more than theirs.
It's mostly our names, as they fray and thin,
blown on the breaths of aging friends and kin,
that in some tugging moments we may seem
to sleep on a little past the dream.
I think of the present beloved alpha male in my life, who shows astounding patience, gentleness and compassion not only to me but to his four children (two of whom are adults, the other two almost, all of whom adore him) as well as the woman with whom he has shared much of his time, who is losing her life by degrees to a physically and cognitively degenerative disease. He cares for her with the utmost tenderness.
I think most especially and profoundly of my spiritual mentor, who would not care to have his name mentioned (He told me once, though, when I asked how I could go through life and not acknowledge what had so fundamentally been given me, “You may say that there is … someone.”)
All of these human beings, biologically male, have poured acts of profound nurturing on me. They have, in fact, each in their own way, mothered me.
Cruelty, and its reversal
Mother’s Day, in its insistence on biology and sentiment, leaves out many. It can be a cruel holiday.
Cruel to those who were lucky enough to have mothers who were both biological and nurturing, but who are now dead.
Cruel to those whose mothers were not remotely cut out for the job, and live with this consequences of this. (Like my friend CJ whose mother used CJ when she was a young girl, as bait for her, the mother’s, pedophile boyfriends… Her mother apologized, just once but explicitly, for doing this to CJ. She did this just before her death. Well, at least she did it. But that still leaves CJ with a lot to deal with, as how could it not?).
Cruel to every woman who wants to, but is not able to, have children.
Cruel to those of us who spend much of our lives and energies in what can be called mothering, but are not mothers.
Yet by thinking of and acting on mothering in this largest sense, we can ourselves nurture and heal.
To those whose mothers are no longer in this world, we can say, “I’m sorry,” and “Remember her with me, tell me what you loved about her, and what drove you crazy.” Allow dimension in that remembering; it trumps sentiment (so one-sided, so reductive) every single time.
To those whose mothers were not remotely cut out for the job, and live with the consequences of this, we can also say, “I’m sorry,” and “Remember her with me. Recount the crime, I will not flinch. Tell me what you longed for. Tell me in what ways, if any, you were able to love each other. Tell me what you do with this pain.”
To those whose mothers are not remotely cut out for the job, in present time, we can step up. Can offer what seems to us to need offering: sandwich, camping trip, listening ear, open heart, fold-out couch, lesson in baking or horseback riding. Perhaps — and I say this with trepidation and ambivalence, but with certainty that sometimes it must be done — a call to the authorities.
To every woman who wants to, but is not able to, have children, an “I’m sorry.” And, “I’m listening.” No “Have you considered adoption?” (Duh.) No “Well, then God must not have meant for you to have children.” (And how would you know that? Did God text you that information?)
To those of us who spend much of our lives and energies in what can be called mothering, but are not mothers, acknowledgement, perhaps.
I say, nix Mother’s Day. Nix the mother part, and nix the day part.
Love, and live that love, transcending biology.
Nurture, and be nurtured, every day, exchanging the diurnal for the eternal.
Compost, and nurture the earth. Listen to, and feed, not only your children and your friends, but strangers, like the tech support guy in Bangalore helping you with the installation of something or other on your laptop , to whom your kind word, acknowledging him as a fellow human being, may change if not his life than a few hours of it.
Mothering, and being mothered, in this largest sense, assures that not only will we “… in some tugging moments seem / to sleep on a little past the dream” but that, during this brief waking dream called life, we will be more fully awake.