‘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.

18 thoughts on “‘Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey’

  1. Deb love your musings about things. Mother’s Day is hard to welcome when you no longer have your Mom with you. But I have my sister and the day become one of remembering and sharing thoughts about our mother. More than anything else it becomes a day of love shared by the two people who remember her best. When the phone rings it’s from my sons wishing me love. So it goes. Happy Mother’s Day. Robin

  2. Hi Deborah… thanks for the post! I have to agree with Anna, to hell with extravagance. (I love her hat in that picture in the link btw!) I’m a mother of four feline friends, as I think I’ve mentioned. I honor all mothers, my own, my sister who is a mother of three, and a friend who gave a child up for adoption nearly 20 years ago… usually just a phone call, and some silent time to remember.

  3. Personally, I love Mother’s Day. I spend so much time taking care of my family that it is indeed relaxing to let them take the reigns for one day. But you’re absolutely right about avoiding restaurants on that day–I like the idea of lounging around and reading…(the only problem is that no one makes scones as well as I do, so I may have to bake a batch the day before!)

  4. I lived in New York for many years and I never smelled anything coming from New Jersey except Bayonne. Your mother’s sounds like she was quite a hoot. I love the message she left you. Great title for your next book!

  5. Loved the title and everything else in your post. I love how you shared what my family calls “Margeisms” things only mothers could make up. My fave of my mother came when I noticed that the mashed potatoes had lumps in it – she said “eat around it” Yeah, right, Mom!
    Happy Mother’s Day, Deborah!

  6. When my sons used to ask what I wanted for Mother’s Day, I would say, “help in the yard”. They used to beg me to let them make me breakfast or dinner–anything, really, rather than weed:)

    “The Home Fires Are Burning…My Feet!”

  7. I miss my mom, especially on Mother’s Day. I have no children of my own, but I do have a God-daughter who’s grown with a young son of her own. I’m so proud of the wonderful mother she’s become and I choose to spend the day celebrating my gratitude to have her in my life.

    This is a wonderful piece. So interesting and informative. And I agree, that your mom sounds like she was a total hoot.

  8. I’m all choked up from the part about your daughter surprising you on Mother’s Day! I can imagine no greater gift…

    Speaking of the Demeter-Persephone myth, you may enjoy reading “The Swan Thieves” by Elizabeth Kostova (if you have any time for a novel these days). She also wrote “The Historian” – brilliant historical fiction.

    I love reading your work, Deborah. 🙂

  9. Thanks for the friend add on She Writes. Interesting post. Anna Jarvis, who knew? Ah, my 17 year-old is soon to graduate and my mother has been struggling with brain cancer for some time… so, yes, mother’s day can be a rather emotionally-loaded time.

  10. Funny and poignant, Deborah, and beautifully written.

    I remember the first Mother’s Day after my mother died and it was just horrible because I almost ordered her favorite flowers, hand-tied bouquet of Stargazer Lilies, and made even more horrible because it was in March (it’s celebrated earlier in Europe) and I had to go through it all again in May when the stores here were filled with merchandise.

    I totally agree with you on going out on that particular day. A few years ago, I went to a local restaurant in Hoboken for lunch, and the first thing the waiter asked was, “Are you a mother?” Apparently childless women would not be served that day. Needless to say, we never went back.

  11. hi deb,
    very good piece. and very funny.
    seems to me i was there on the passing of your mom.
    and also around the time ms. sara rode that bicycle.
    thanks for sharing.

    back from norway. see you both soon, like next saturday.

  12. I remember that message from your mother as if it were yesterday. It is still quoted in my house on a regular basis.

    Having a mother you remember so fondly is a gift that needs no warranty–it lasts forever.


  13. Hi Debbie,
    i loved this…i think because reading about mother’s day gave me a preview of the feeling i cherish every mother’s day – the blessing of having two children.
    love reading your words :), and you!

  14. Children are birds that fly away and parents the trees that they return to. That’s a beautiful and honest interpretation. ‘The Runaway Bunny’ ~ haven’t read this yet, but you bet I’ll be placing it on my list. It’s sweet to learn how your daughter surprised you. Hope you have a relaxed Mother’s Day this weekend. 🙂

    ‘Take care of yourself and you’ll be a better mother’ sounds like the roots of that tree.

  15. Beautiful words about mothers and our day. I love the quote from Runaway Bunny. It’s much more charming than “give them roots and wings” which I’ve always lived by – though over the years,as my boys (now men and one a father) had problems, as minor as they may have been, I wished I could bottle them up and keep them babies, protect them always. But,alas, I couldn’t — and wouldn’t. I never wanted my mother to do that!
    I agree, flowers, a phone call, that’s all – and a peaceful day. Who wants traffic and crowds?

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