The last time I witnessed a woman becoming a mother, it wasn't anything like the frilly sentiments of Mother's Day. She lay on her back, perspiring heavily and yelling, "Oh my God, why did you do this to me? I'll never forgive you in a hundred years. I hope you hurt like this someday. Give me another epidural, you sadists. And get this thing out of me!" and looking up at me as if she were burning at the stake and I had lit the fire. And when the Infant appeared and was placed on the Madonna's chest, she said, "What in the world am I supposed to do with that?"
It begins in innocence. Music is playing, the night smells of lilacs, she asks if he would like to come in for a minute, and he does, and little does she know what cataclysm awaits her inside: the loss of individuality as she joins the Holy Order of Maternity.
Mothers were, at one time, young women with Possibilities who might have taken a different route and become glamorous and powerful figures in Size 2 dresses and instead found themselves cleaning up excrement and jiggling colicky babies to get them to stop screaming. They hardly ever get to London anymore or have time to read James Joyce. They sit down to dinner with adults and feel brain-dead. A bouquet of flowers hardly seems compensation enough. How about a million dollars and a house in the south of France?
My mother appears in a photograph of five young women in white summer dresses walking hand-in-hand, grinning, on a country lane near Cottage Grove, Minn., in 1932 when she was 17, not long before she met my father, and they all look so fresh and happy, as if in a careless paradise all their own. She is willowy, shy and beautiful and she might've modeled evening gowns at Dayton's Sky Room and maybe been spotted by a Hollywood scout and wound up in pictures, playing the village girl who charms the world-weary tycoon stranded in Littleville by the blizzard. Instead, she became a suburban pioneer, making a home in a muddy cornfield, putting up the stewed tomatoes and canned beans every fall, raising six children, slogging through bouts of mumps and flu, whomping up big Christmases, fishing the laundry out of the washing machine and putting it through the wringer and hanging it on the line. Is that what the smiling girl of 1932 had in mind?
The cruel injustice of motherhood is that, out of devotion to her brood, she sacrifices so much of her own life that her children grow up to find her a little boring in comparison to the maiden aunt who is a little rebellious and more fun to be around, whereas Mom is just the lady who runs the vacuum. As Erma Bombeck said, the kids walk in and ask her, "Is anybody home?"
But she loves you. You could come home with snakes tattooed on your face and she still would see the good in you. Most great men were mama's boys. She encouraged them long before anybody else could see any talent there.
Your mother is on top of the situation. Your father has a hard time remembering your birthday or even your Christian name, but your mother knows you by scent, thanks to years of doing your laundry. She knows when you're in trouble. And you will get into deep trouble someday. Count on it. Someone will file a lawsuit against you and subpoena your e-mail and it will all come flooding out, your dark secrets, your nefarious dealings, and your friends will cross the street to avoid you and your brothers and sisters will fade into the woodwork, but your mother will still love you. Like an old lioness, she'll come running even if you're 2,000 miles away.
That is why you pay homage to the old lady on Mother's Day. You entered this cold world causing her more pain than she thought possible and now she won't ever give up on you. Those old ladies you see being wheeled onto airliners are the mothers of children facing imminent indictment for terrible things. Mama will be in the courtroom for you, baby. She will look the jury in the eye and her look may get you acquitted.
Buy her something nice, like a set of gold ingots. Or a black car with a chauffeur. She's your mama, honeybuns. At least you could write her a note.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.