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Gotta admit, Mother’s Day is not my favorite holiday. Nothing whatsoever against my mother, mothers in general, or mother as a concept. Not even if “mom” is substituted for “mother” in the preceding sentence, though that might bring us perilously close to the Momism that Philip Wylie eviscerated in his 1942 screed against American fatuities, Generation of Vipers. Mother’s Day itself is being rehabilitated some, at least as historians recover its original sources in first-wave feminism and peace activism.
No, the problem is, most obviously, the preemption of heartfelt affection by Hallmark sentimentalism; more subtly, by norms communicated to us by church and society alike. The father-and-mother injunction in the Ten Commandments. The salute to Mom as the one unalloyed, unabashed non-market loyalty allowed, even prescribed, in hyper-capitalist culture. Thou shalt love thy mother, no questions asked. Now, go buy her stuff.
Except we do have questions, inevitably. And most properly, out of this earliest bond, this first school of love, this font of beliefs and prescriptions. How to individuate? How to live up to her standards? How to properly protest when those standards are wrong or, once right, have somehow become misleading? How to discern this imposing presence as a dear, puzzling, precious, exasperating, unique human being instead of god, or God’s stand-in? You won’t find the answers in any card I’ve ever seen. Nor in most pulpit tributes proclaimed on this High Holy-Day which signals the end of the church year that Americans actually observe, the one that begins with Labor Day as the end of summer and concludes with the celebration of Mother at the arrival of spring.
I could never find the exact right card for Mother’s Day when I was young, so I was left to craft my own. My Mom is beyond reading now, markedly ebbing in her ninth year of confinement to what the industry calls a “memory-loss unit.” We had seven years of good conversation in this span, particularly about the really old days of her childhood, youth, college years. What she had for lunch or who preached in church that morning? Forgotten—and just as well. Her years of spring recalled in her dead of winter under the sure knowledge that no new spring is forthcoming. In such circumstances the terms of loyalty and memory and unconditional love come to searing clarity. I guess that’s what they mean by the refiner’s fire. Perhaps that makes what’s left the pure gold. Not flashy and bright, you’ll notice. Real gold is a little dark, drawing the eye deep within.
Reduced to searching on-line for an apt Mother’s Day poem, I came upon the following, by Philip Larkin. No cheery-eyed sentimentalist he, and a philandering antithesis to family values besides. But for your humble writer, born as I was near the tipping point of summer into fall, this honest accounting of the three terms in the poem’s title just about nails it. Happy Mother’s Day, mom, and thanks for all you did—and all that was done through you.
Philip Larkin, “Mother, Summer, I” (August 1953)
My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,
And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone.
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can’t confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, 1988