Mother’s Day Essay

(This is a duplicate of the essay “Honoring the Motherless Daughter,” which had a broken link yesterday. Better two versions of a popular essay than none!) 


Mother’s Day again. I was at the grocery store today, buying food for my husband and son to cook for me, so they could lavish attention (or not) on me on this special day. As I hovered by the cheese section, a memory overtook me, of what Mother’s Day used to be like, before my son was born. Back when the only “mom” in my vocabulary, my world, was my own mother. But I’d lost her. They say naps are healthy, nourishing, but my mother lay down one afternoon in February of 1991 to take one and never woke up.

Mother’s Day. The memories came back, there at the grocery store, how hard Mother’s Days were for many years running. What it felt like to dread this day, nurse a private grief all day long. I’d forgotten of late, which shocks me—it was so very intense and personal and deep-seated, that period of being a motherless daughter who wasn’t yet herself a mother. Back then, all Mother’s Day represented for me was the dreadful loss that stung me all over again, year after year.

The best thing about being a writer is that you can capture a feeling in all its intensity at the moment when it is so powerful in you. I wasn’t a working writer when she died, but I was when I had a Big Cry, several years later. And I was when I took pen to paper the following year and wrote just how I felt. That was fifteen years ago. It staggers me to consider that now, wrapped up in my own responsibilities and stresses of motherhood. I am not that same woman. Wait—a girl. I was a mere girl. No, I was a daughter. A motherless daughter.

That is the woman I want to honor and celebrate this Mother’s Day. My step-niece lost her mother just a few tender months back. My three cousins lost their mother sixteen months ago. I think of how many women there are, processing this loss right now, this grief, and I just want to shout out to them, “I love you, I care for you. You are all warrior women and if I can’t be your mother, let me be your sister.”

Because we motherless daughters, we are sisters today, united by what we don’t have. And what a powerful bond it is. Powerful losses produce powerful bonds.

Below is the essay I wrote, those years back. It still speaks to me. Do me a favor. Please share it with any friend who might be struggling with the same loss. Tell her the Motherless Daughters’ club welcomes her with open arms. And it is a big, gloriously supportive club.


(The following essay first appeared in 2001 in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.)

It’s an annual malady, as predictable as the blooming flowers and the lengthening days. Anger and a sense of exclusion mask the pain in my heart as I walk past the card section of a drugstore, where “Happy Mother’s Day” has taken up the space previously occupied by “Happy Easter”. The colorful advertisements for jewelry stores, chocolate shops and florists sting me. “Remember everything Mom did for you – now’s the time to thank her!” “Buy chocolates for the most important woman in your life!”

I lost my mother seven years ago. It was sudden, it was difficult. She was sixty-four and I was twenty-eight. I didn’t realize how close to her I felt until after she died, and I struggled through the numbness, followed by tears and anger, grief tainting my day for months. Life moved on, and I learned to deal with my loss. But Mother’s Day took me by surprise.

I didn’t think twice about going to church on Mother’s Day last year. So much time had passed since her death, I didn’t think I’d feel too emotional. During the sermon, however, the priest began to read a children’s book, a story of the lifetime bond of love between a mother and her child. I felt a stab of pain and then a deeper contraction in my heart. “Oh no, I’m going to cry,” I thought, and then to my mortification, big tears slid down my cheeks.

I felt a Big Cry coming on, the kind that anyone who has lost a loved one understands. It could be five years after their death, it could be a small, sentimental detail, but when something triggers the pain, it roars over you like their death was yesterday. I did everything I could to keep the Big Cry at bay; I bit my lip, I dug my fingernails into my palms, I thought of everything about Mom that had irritated me, but the thoughts were nothing. My mother was dead; she was never coming back. This day, dedicated to mothers, drove the loss in like a dagger into my heart. The tears flowed faster, I gave a hiccupping sob, struggled up and scurried out of Mass. I stumbled out to my car, and in my private space, I let it all out. Another annual cry. It’s “I Lost My Mother” Day.

Mother’s Day has become the day of the year that I mourn my mother the most. It’s like hearing people talk about a party to which I’m not invited. I find myself getting moody two weeks before the event, something inside me curling up into a tight, hard ball, that comes off as a sour attitude to observers. I make plans for That Day, that don’t require acknowledgement of the holiday. I slip up occasionally – after an evening movie, my husband and I grab a quick bite in a restaurant that has decorations up, or family groups still eating with Mom, flushed and smiling, at the place of honor. I look the other way and comment to my husband that I’m not as hungry as I thought I was.

“Oh, but you haven’t really lost her,” well-meaning people try to tell me. “Her spirit is with you.”
I’m sorry, sometimes I just want more than her spirit. “I’ve lost my mother,” I want to scream to all the people at church, at restaurants, Mom by their side. “Be glad you have your mother,” I snap at my friends, when they gripe about their mothers.

I know I’m not the only one to suffer on Mother’s Day. For many, the day is a reminder that their mothers are sick, dying or far away. Other people don’t have a positive relationship with their mother, never have, and years of hurt and misunderstandings separate the two of them. For so many of us, Mother’s Day hurts.

I can, at least, speak with my siblings on Mother’s Day. It comforts me to talk with those who share the same memories.

“Isn’t it time for others to start acknowledging those who suffer on this day?” I asked one of them once. “You know, give our plight some space on the card racks?”

“Hallmark would never go for it,” he said. “How much money would they make over a card you’ll never get to mail?”

“Hey, remember how Mom used to send us a card for every holiday, even Halloween and Fourth of July?”

“You forgot St. Patrick’s Day.”

“And she used to write the word “love” on a piece of paper and slip it in whenever she sent me a package. She was afraid to write anything more, since the post office charges you more when you include a letter in a package.”

We laughed, the memories soothing my hurt.

Months later, as I write this, a child grows inside me, my first. It is a shock to realize that by Mother’s Day, I will be a mother. And it comforts me: now I can share something with my mother, that link of life that we have both been privileged to carry on. My child (a son, alas, and not a daughter) will grow up in my protective embrace and in his adult years, he will hold some of the same memories of “mom” that I do. Some memories will make him smile, others will make him grimace or groan, and something deep and timeless in him will revere the woman who gave him life.


PS: for more “motherless daughter” inspiration, check out this post, written for 2014 Mother’s Day:

4 thoughts on “Mother’s Day Essay”

  1. Carolyn – I see your comment on the other, broken page, and I’m going to cut and paste it here, okay?

    My family had a tradition of wearing a corsage to church for Mother’s Day. Red flowers if your mother was alive, white flowers if she had passed. The year my grandmother died, my mother donned the white flower with grace and dignity. My mother passed 14 years later, making it my turn to wear the white flower. As the first Mother’s Day approached after her death, I told my husband in advance, “Don’t get me a flower this year. I can’t bear to wear a white flower, so I’d rather wear no flower at all.” She’s been gone nearly 10 years now and I haven’t worn Mother’s Day flowers since.

  2. Carolyn – wow, that is one gripping story. It reminds me of what one might read in “Readers Write” from The Sun magazine. It’s heartbreaking, really. I would feel so sad, seeing the differentiation of colors that the women were wearing. To see it change from red to white.

    I guess you felt the same. Wow, no kidding, what a painful feeling, to consider the shift.

    I think I’m repeating myself. I’m just sorta lost in the beauty and the grip of your story. Thanks for sharing it!

  3. I too remember the loss of your mom, my other mom. It came so close to the loss of my mom and then of course my dad followed the month after your mom. Such a horrible time for me and for you. But I am so thankful for the love your mom showed to me. Allowing me into your home and into her arms as well. I miss her too my friend, I miss her too…..

  4. Oh, Donna, I remember that. It felt almost surreal. I was so stunned to hear your dad died, I could hardly process it. That was a surreal year of death. Ah, oh, how my mom loved you and treated you just like another Mertes kid. Well, but of course you are!

    At least we’ve both got my dad still, huh? : )


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