May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.

May 9 2011

Wicked Mother’s Day

After sprinting down the stairs and turning the corner, Short-pants stubbed her toe on the step into the living room and exploded into screeching tears. I was careful not to run to her too swiftly – I hate to fuel the crisis with more panic – but still, a young girl’s throbbing toe deserves a little sympathy. I kissed her dirty toenail (only a mother would do this) and offered the standard, reassuring words before turning back to finish unpacking the suitcase from our weekend trip.

“No, there’s something else.” Tears were dripping down her cheeks like open faucets. “It’s Mother’s Day. I just saw it on my calendar. And we didn’t do anything for you!”

Of course this was not news to me. I’d deleted scores of Mother’s Day promotional emails that fell into my inbox because of the various mom-blog newsletters I read. But since we don’t consume a lot of media in our home, let alone American media, the over-marketed Mother’s Day messaging somehow didn’t reach anyone else in my family. I am perfectly capable of hinting at it, “You know what I’d like to do for Mother’s Day is…” and in the past I have. But sometimes it just feels akward to be pointing it out.

I’d pretty much put it aside. Who wants to be held emotional hostage by a Hallmark holiday? Though if anybody deserves an extra day of appreciation – even if it is the commercial idea of a greedy greeting card company – it surely is your mother, often the most taken-for-granted person in the family.

My brother did call to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, inquiring if I’d been celebrated sufficiently. “Look at it this way,” he said, “you didn’t have to pretend to enjoy that burnt-toast breakfast and wax enthusiastically about the handmade cards.” He had a point.

~ ~ ~

De-facto had reason to be in the UK last week, and another project scheduled there again early this week, so instead of him doing a back-and-forth, we decided I’d bring the Short-pants and Buddy-roo across the channel and we’d play London tourists for a weekend. We have some new colleagues-turned-friends who generously offered us accommodation, tackling the hardest part of being a tourist in London: the cost of hotels. With a little bit of juggling schedules, training in and out of the city and making use of the left-luggage service at the station, we choreographed a busy weekend: the London Eye, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, and a matinee show of Wicked, the story of the Wizard of Oz before and after Dorothy lands in Munchkinland. Both De-Facto and I had seen it on a kid-free London theatre weekend a few years ago, so we labored a bit over the decision. Both of us wanted to see something that we’d not been to before, but in the end I pressed for Wicked knowing the girls would love it. Besides, they’re both stars in the Wizard of Oz school play, so this was relevant backstory. (Shouldn’t “parenting travel” be tax-deductable?)

One of the cool parts about being a mom (or a parent, for that matter) is introducing your children to culture. It’s not the first time we’ve taken them to the theatre, they’ve seen stage performances of On the Town, Les Misérables and The Sound of Music in Paris at the Chatelet Theatre, which is pretty special. But nobody does theatre like the West End. And we had brilliant seats that were just-the-right-amount close to the stage. I spent as much time admiring my children’s open-jawed, concentrated-awe as I did watching the actors performing their story.
My favorite moment: at a climatic point in which Elphaba, who was good-hearted and thoughtful before becoming the Wicked Witch of the West, stood on stage with Glinda, who’d been vain and self-centered before growing into the more gentle-hearted Witch of the North, and they sang to each other about the important exchange their friendship had yielded. In one song, an ambiguous complexity of life expressed: how circumstances can turn someone good into someone wicked, and inspire someone wicked to do something good. Short-pants moved her hand on top of mine, and I turned to see a tear sliding slowly down her cheek.

“It’s sad,” she said, “but it’s also happy.”

Much like the sappy scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts’ character goes to the opera and gets it, not only did Short-pants love the staging and the magic of the performance, she also understood the poignancy of this moment in the play. To witness how this moved her, well, I suppose that’s right up there with the coolest Mother’s Day presents you can get.

~ ~ ~

She sobbed in my arms. I’m sorry maman, we should have done something for you today. I didn’t even make you a card.”

Here’s what you’re supposed to read next: “and in that moment, I realized this was the joy of motherhood, and the only acknowledgment I needed.” But I’d be lying if I reported to you that in an instant I relinquished any residual, though mild, disappointment I’d been harboring.

I’m a little more wicked than that. It took me a few more breaths, a couple of my own tears at being forgotten (except of course I know I’m not) and a short visit to the memory bank. I’d spent a fair amount of time, on this Mother’s Day, thinking about (and missing) my own mother, whom I took entirely for granted as a child, and whom I treated with the typical disdain of a teenager. I grew to admire her, and then (especially) to appreciate her after becoming a mother myself, when I began to understand what kind of a sacrifice is required to be a mom, and how she’d done it so elegantly. I never knew if it had been hard for her or not.

Then, okay, I could get there, to see the message in this beautiful expression, this whole-bodied apology – how my little girl’s heart was breaking because she was afraid she’d broken mine. So when I said that “this hug is the best gift you could give me for Mother’s Day,” I really meant it.

We embraced for a long time. Buddy-roo even came over and put her arms around the two of us and joined the love-in.

“But wait,” Short-pants said, lifting her head, “we still have French Mother’s Day to celebrate.” Her eyes lit up with an idea. “I’ll make you breakfast in bed!”

May 8 2010

My Mother’s Voice

My mother’s voice, all those years, was something to roll my eyes at.

It was a scolding plea to pick up my room, take my papers off the table, move my shoes from the hallway. It was the never-ending question: “How was school today?” Or an occasionally mystified, “what do you mean I didn’t buy the right kind?” The voice of a woman entirely incapable of differentiating Lee from Levis from Wrangler; the voice of a woman who never once in her life wore a pair of jeans.

My mother’s voice, those years, strong and clear in conference rooms and at speaker podiums – an articulate, educated, diplomatic voice. A voice that incited admiration and rarely faltered. A voice I didn’t disbelieve, but yet I couldn’t fully appreciate it. How could I? All listening is selective, especially when there are things we don’t want to hear.

My mother’s voice is now a voice inside my head: a memory, a childhood song, a compliment, a reprimand. It’s a beckoning call from the back porch. It’s a gentle whisper from the other room.

My mother’s voice. I hear it when I speak to my children. Please pick up your toys before the cleaner comes. Please clear your plates when you leave the table. You can’t go out without socks. Now my own voice, that of a mother’s, echoing the voice that once annoyed me as much as it soothed me.

Sometimes I hear my own voice, responding to a sweet prideful request to “watch me!” or “look at this!’ with a half-listening, half-present, “Yes, that’s great.” Once Short-pants said to me, “Mama, do you know what I mean? Are you listening?” Or Buddy-roo, who said to me yesterday, “I’d like you to close your computer, maman.” I am often caught in the act of being distracted and pretending to care: A wake-up call that my voice isn’t always the mothering voice I want to speak with.

Soon enough they will roll their eyes at me.

Now I know what it was that I heard in my mother’s voice: the voice of a woman trying to juggle a full life, a voice answering the call of work, of her colleagues, of her community and of her husband and her children, a voice calling out to herself amidst a grand chorus of voices, a cacophony of demanding, needing, wanting voices. A voice occasionally gasping for air. A voice I recognize differently now, now that it is also my own.

May 10 2009

Mother du Jour

Today, families all across the United States are celebrating Mother’s Day. However in France, where I woke up this morning, it was not officially Mother’s Day. So even though our household could be called American, there was little fanfare.

By mid-day I’d left my children behind and was on the train to London where Mother’s Day has already happened (in the UK, this event was in April). Once again, no fanfare.

A few weeks from now, it will be la Fête des Meres in France. Unfortunately, on that hallowed Sunday, I will not be in Paris to take advantage of it. I’ll be in the US (visiting my mother, in fact).

I’ve gotten it all wrong, haven’t I?

But what are the rules? Do you celebrate the Mother’s Day of your nationality? Or is it a question of the soil you’re standing on when the actual Mother’s Day comes up on the calendar? If we accept these geographical guidelines, then I’m out of luck; not even one bouquet of flowers or a clumsily served breakfast in bed.

Historically, if you forget the American Mother’s Day but you live in France, you can just say you only celebrate the French one. (That only works once, by the way.) But one could argue that if you’re American living in France, you ought to celebrate both Mother’s Days, right?
I know that Mother’s Day is a Hallmark-non-holiday, invented for commercial purposes. I try (really) not to buy in to it. But in the end, don’t we all want to be fussed over just a bit? Yes it’s silly. But I’ll take any holiday that anyone cares to remember.

The good news is I’ve not been forgotten. My darling De-facto did slip an envelope in my bag just before I left for the train station today. I caught him red handed, which foiled his intended surprise, but anyway I enjoyed some very sweet home-made cards with beautiful princess pictures (and an uncanny portrait of me) while speeding toward the Chunnel.

And the really big news: Apparently, I have been named Mother of the Year.
Who knew?