Since 1913, when Congress officially recognized the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, Americans have celebrated this most traditional of made-up holidays.
Mothers go out in force every day, but on this spring Sunday they are more effectively displayed than usual, dressed up and festooned with flowers and accompanied by their offspring, making them easy to spot in the buffet line or at large corner tables hemmed in by high-chairs and diaper bags.
Anna Jarvis, the Mother of Mother’s Day, organized the first celebrations in 1908 to honor her own mother. But around 1920 Ms. Jarvis began to dedicate her energies to trying to stamp out the holiday she invented, when she realized commercialism had spoiled it. As so often happens when mothers offer advice, the nation ignored hers and went right on doing as she had done, not as she said.
This Sunday I will place the Mother’s Day Telephone Call, and if my mother is not in the middle of crushing her opponents in a bridge game, she will answer.
But is she the only mother I should remember?
My mother knows how to delegate and in the area of mothering she can take credit for lining up at least one other mother for me, a friend from her college days, Betty Nelson. Betty began her term as Assistant Mother when I was born and up until her death last year she was still at it, writing me letters, calling, encouraging me.
She let me know that I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to and she cheered my every accomplishment, no matter how small. B average? “Great!” Honorable Mention? “You’ll be first next year!” Entry-level position? “Soon you’ll be running the place.”
Although she lived in Daytona Beach, Betty Nelson was an avid reader of the Shelter Island Reporter for my sake and wrote to me several times in the months before she died to say how much she enjoyed reading it.
Mothers want you to improve, to grow up, to be something more than what you currently are.
Your mother has aspirations for you, even if that aspiration is modest; for you to be just a little happier and better than you are now.
Mrs. Merzbacher was the leader of my Girl Scout troop when I was 10 years old. Her husband was a professor of quantum physics who spent a lot of time thinking about things no one could see and few understood. But Mrs. Merzbacher was a practical, fun and warm-hearted woman who inspired me to feats that amaze me now.
Under her guidance, my troop constructed and operated an oven out of tin foil, wood and earth and made brownies in it. We made devices called “buddy burners” out of tuna fish cans, rolled cardboard and paraffin that we used on camping trips (along with our earth oven) to heat SpaghettiOs. In my eyes she was a miracle worker and the self-reliance and resourcefulness she modeled inspired me.
When I was 14 I started baby sitting. My first client was Brigitte Hamilton, whose children Sebastian and Sunita were only about 10 years younger than I was. They lived a short walk down the dirt road from us and the kids loved our Bassett Hound named Luther, which is how I met them.
Mrs. Hamilton, as I called her, took an interest in me and that interest was fully reciprocated. She disapproved of what she regarded as my prudishness and gave me a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the 1973 manual of health that urged women to take control of their bodies. She also taught me to make a delicious cheesecake, which enhanced my determination to take control of my body.
For the 30 years I knew her my husband’s mother was as much a mother to me as to him. On our wedding day she gave me a hug that is still the most profound physical contact I’ve ever had with a human being, an embrace that somehow communicated her love but also her high expectations for me as a daughter and wife.
It didn’t hurt that we loved to spend time together. She was a good cook who welcomed my company in the kitchen and she even liked to work on a crossword puzzle with me as long as I didn’t actually write on it. (Her attempts to teach me to write an R that didn’t look like an A ultimately failed.)
My husband’s mother had the gift of making each of her children think that she loved them best.
But I know that it was me she loved best.
A few days after Mother’s Day, just shy of her 92nd birthday, she died. She squeezed my hand as she lay in bed surrounded by her offspring and let me know that even if she wasn’t my mother, I was definitely one of her brood.