‘Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey’

Years ago, as a single woman living in New York, I came home one night to a message on my answering machine, no mistaking my mother’s voice: “Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey.” Apparently some sulfurous vapor had been released into the atmosphere from, yes, New Jersey, and was headed straight to NYC. Humor aside, what may have been lost on me as the daughter testing her independence (if only a stone’s throw from the fold) was made ever so manifest the minute I found myself on the flip side of the mother-daughter coin. I may not leave LOL voicemails, but e-mails and text messages underscored by :-)-worthy typos are part and parcel of the daily repartee with my daughter.  Each year out on her own brings a new mix of freedom and frustrations; I get to observe both from afar, give only as much advice as I’m asked to give, breathe a little lighter as  anxieties give way to healthy coping strategies; the more she takes care of herself, the better off we both are. And if I can’t protect her (forever), I can still remind her of my favorite line from The Runaway Bunny:  “‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’”

Some things take a little getting used to.  On the first Mother’s Day I would spend without my own mother (she had died a month earlier), there was no chance to mourn. My daughter, six years old at the time, wanted to test her mettle on a two-wheeler.  We were on a cul-de-sac next to my in-laws’  house, Grandma all smiles as I kept her pride and joy as steady as I could, until it was time to release my grip, the gift for me truly in the giving. On the first Mother’s Day I expected to spend without my daughter (her freshman year at college), the blues went out the door the minute she walked in – surprise!  The best things come in no packages at all.

A recent rereading of the Demeter-Persephone myth has me thinking about Mother as archetype and the ways in which we celebrate motherhood.  In Charlene Spretnak’s  concise and eye-opening Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, she reminds us of how patriarchy’s ‘managing of information’ over the centuries has colored the classical myths handed down to us. The pre-Hellenic Persephone is a young woman whose entry into the underworld is a willful, compassionate calling, not an abduction; her return is in the form of spring crocuses.  Likewise for Demeter, who renders the earth barren not as an act of anger or vengeance but out of sorrow and despair.  And the myth surrounding the birth of Zeus, even in its Hellenic form, is nothing if not a reminder that hell hath no fury like a mother’s need to protect her child. As Robert Graves tells it, Rhea is enraged at her husband, Cronus, who, as a hedge against the prophesy that a son would dethrone him, swallows each of the children she bears.  When it comes time to give birth to Zeus, she does it in secret and hides the infant. Of course, the megalomaniac husband gets wind of it but she’s one step ahead. She wraps a stone in swaddling clothes, a ruse that Cronus apparently has no problem swallowing.

Mother worship may well be traced to ancient times, but the credit for Mother’s Day as we know it goes to a woman named Anna Jarvis. In 1907, two years after her mother died, Jarvis started aggressively campaigning for a national day commemorating mothers. By 1909 a day of observance would be set aside in forty-five states,  red and white carnations (a favorite of the elder Jarvis) worn in tribute  to mothers.  Seven years later, the second Sunday in May would be declared a national holiday.   As a poignant afterthought, Anna Jarvis, so distressed by the commercialization of the holiday, would spend much of her resources and the rest of her life in outright opposition to the holiday she had created.

Who can blame her for feeling the way she did? The truth be known, Mother’s Day is my least favorite day of the year to go out to a restaurant (but don’t ask me to cook, either).  Just let me sit quietly with the Sunday Times, a cup of coffee and a fresh scone.  Flowers are always welcome. Most important of all, a phone call from my daughter.