The definition of “Mother” I like most of all: “A thing very big of its kind”

For me, Mother’s Day is not only about having lost a mother, or becoming one. Because not only mothers mother

Published May 9, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>redstone</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(redstone via Shutterstock)

On Mother’s Day 24 years ago, I couldn’t get out of bed. My mom had died that January, nine days after being diagnosed with melanoma that had metastasized to her liver, and suddenly the holiday seemed like a nationwide taunt. “Home Is Where Your Mom Is” cards leered at me in the supermarket; stuffed bears held up “No One Loves You Like a Mother” balloons. Even now, decades later, seeing a dish towel proclaiming, “The Next Best Thing to Having You for a Mom Is Knowing My Children Will Have You for a Grandma,” makes my stomach clench. I wish Edward Gorey were still alive, so he could illustrate a more appropriate card. “Your Mother’s Ghost Says Hello,” it could say, with a picture of willowy children and their cats picnicking in the cemetery.

My mother would have loved that card, since she was a huge Edward Gorey fan—we grew up with a giant, signed “Gashlycrumb Tinies” poster in our kitchen—and her Gorey love is now part of the collage that remains where she once existed. When I think of her, the swirl of images and memories includes bottles of Jean Naté After Bath Splash, her pale wooden guitar, Pogo cartoons, green fettuccine with bolognese sauce, little square blocks of Ne-Mo’s carrot cake, and her Sunday ritual of reading the New York Times Book Review cover to cover in bed. She was, like me, barely over 5 feet tall, and unlike me, had black hair and blue eyes. One of my strongest memories is the December night she took me to a see a play called "Lettice and Lovage." I was 18, and she wasn’t yet ill; we had no idea that six weeks later she’d be dead. We laughed throughout the play and kept laughing as we walked arm in arm down Sixth Avenue, stepping in time together—a Gilmore Girlsian night that seemed uneventful at the time, but is now revered and preserved as one of the best nights of my life. When I see women with their mothers now, I can’t help staring at them like a rubbernecker. What do they talk about? I watch their heads bend toward each other, the daughter's eye rolls, their luxurious ignorance of the mammoth fact that their mothers are alive.

In the months after she died, I devoured books about death, dying and grief, from multiple tomes by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to a slim volume my college registrar tucked into my mailbox called “Good Grief.” I liked the idea of the five stages of grief, with their neat packaging and hopeful tones, but nearly 25 years later, I don’t know that I’ve ever reached the lovely-sounding “acceptance” stage. Decades on, grief seems less like a stage and more like a strange flu: avoided in some years, mild in others, virulent at times, always changing. When I figure out how to summon Edward Gorey’s ghost, I’ll also ask him to illustrate a grief book called “The Lingering Malady.”

There are days when the grief still blindsides me. One afternoon 10 years ago, I stepped into a children’s shop to buy a gift for a friend’s baby, and I heard the song “Jennie Rebecca” playing on the speakers. It’s a song my mother sang to me all my life, though I never before knew its title or author—somehow I’d always imagined she’d made it up herself. I went home and searched for it online, through tears, and I found out it’s a ballad to a young baby written by Carol Hall and popularized by Barbra Streisand. “Jennie Rebecca, four days old, how do you like the world so far?” the song asks. My mother had changed the words, replacing the lyrics with my name, ever-growing age, and details of our family, and as she sang it, with a hand caressing my back, I’d never felt so loved.

As I read the lyrics I realized she’d made another curious change: the song’s narrator repeatedly calls the baby “lucky,” which my mother replaced with “lovely.” I don’t think she’d ever felt particularly lucky, mainly because she never believed her own parents loved her. They were German Jews, and when my mother was a baby, in 1939, she and my grandmother escaped from Frankfurt on one of the last boats America let in; a black swastika is stamped on her birth certificate. Her parents were cold and distant people; my mom told me they never hugged her, and as she was dying she refused to let them visit her in the hospital. They never said goodbye to each other before she died.

Yet despite that lack of love from her parents, she’d managed, somehow, to love my sister and me. She never held back, never made us doubt or question her love for us.

In 2006 my daughter was born, and my feelings toward Mother’s Day didn’t change overnight—at first I couldn’t believe I was a mother now. And what was a mother, exactly? I’d instantly joined an army of bewildered, sleep-deprived stroller women who looked like we’d been dropped into a "Twilight Zone" episode. My dictionary has an entire page of “Mother” definitions, from mother of vinegar, a “ropy mucilaginous substance” (an apt description of my feelings toward Mother’s Day for many years), to, concisely, “a source,” none of which seemed to capture the complexity of those new-mother days.

But though the mantle was unfamiliar, the love wasn’t strange or new. I kept staring at my daughter’s photo every time I was away from her; I couldn’t stop kissing her cottony hair and seashell fingernails. In my dictionary, farther down the page, there’s another definition of “Mother” that I like most of all: “A thing very big of its kind.”

In my mind, Mother’s Day has shifted now, so that it’s not only about having lost a mother, or becoming one. Because not only mothers mother: My father mothered me after my mom died; he mothered me at doctor’s visits when I feared I might have skin cancer like she did, and listened and offered comfort until his own death seven years later; my sister and my friends and I mother each other daily with phone calls and messages and attention and affection; and for 24 years I’ve mothered myself, too, by reading and grieving and taking care of myself. That lavishing of love when my mom sang to me was teaching me, I realize now, how to love, how not to hold back, how to show and give it no matter how alone or bewildered you might feel. My favorite part of every day is when my children—my son was born three years after my daughter—have finished wrestling with bedtime, right before they fall asleep. Time stops for a few moments when I caress their backs and hold them and sing “Jennie Rebecca” (though they don’t know that’s the song’s title either), with their names and ages, and I say "lovely" instead of "lucky." I’m not a religious person, but I think of this nighttime ritual with my children as a sort of worship, a worship of this ability of humans to take our loneliness and lack and losses and create something new. A new love that’s much larger than one’s self and one’s mother and one’s children, but is a source, a Thing Very Big of its Kind in this unlucky but lovely world.

Margo Rabb is the author of "Kissing in America" and "Cures for Heartbreak."

By Margo Rabb

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