It has come round again: the day of the year I most cherish and dread. I am not drawn to the commerce of the occasion- the forced buys of somehow-not-as-fragrant-as-in-the-past lilacs (Where have the true aromatic lilacs gone? To botanical heaven, every one?) Certainly I’m avoiding the pink, blushing cards with cloying images of “MOM.” What are these images for Mother’s Day 2005? They are, in order of popularity at my local card counter: wreath of roses, a wicker rocking chair, a kitchen counter, a steaming pie.
My mother was never “Mom.” I called my mother by her first name, Rosie, and Rosie was light years ahead of her time: a single mother, a 35-year-old “career girl” from a respectable family who had a baby on her own, long before such matters were routine or applauded. Tall and attractive (“People always say I’m ‘attractive,'” my mother would muse aloud. “Does that mean ‘ not beautiful or pretty’?”) …. In retrospect, attractive was the right word: Rosie attracted. She was tall for those days (5-foot-8), with a mass of dark curls and shining dark eyes. She wore Barbara Stanwyck–style suits and smart pumps. Her favorite job was as Thornton Wilder’s secretary. I still have a note from Thornton Wilder thanking my mother “for her beautiful smile.” Her smile was beautiful, because it was spontaneous. She sparkled when she smiled; her eyes crinkled, and her smiles often escalated to breathless laughs. But as she walked smartly around on those smart pumps, Rosie left behind a trail of contradictions.
Though ahead of her time, she was old-fashioned enough to hide most of the crucial information. She mentioned my father only in the vaguest romantic terms. He’d been handsome, blond, a flier (how apropos this was, I can only guess). When I was 4, she announced that he’d been shot down in “the war.” The single problem with this story was that, at that time, there was no war-save, perhaps, the war between the sexes.
But something happened that spring day when she told me on the sunny street that my father would not be “marching home.” As a grown woman now, I can guess that day marked the day she decided not to wait for my father any longer. Not only was he dead “on a flying mission,” but his medals had been burned, his uniform was ashes, and there was nothing-not a charred ribbon-to be sent home to us.
Having never known my father, I recall being less devastated by his alleged death (even then I think I suspected he was very much alive, only dispensed with) than by the possibility that his alleged dog, a boxer named Butch who had been described by Rosie as “his canine co-pilot,” might also have perished on this same Air Force mission. How kind of her to spare Butch from the conflagration. Butch was “reassigned,” she told me. “The Air Force needs dogs like Butch.” Of course, I would love to ask her to tell me the truth about my father-a truth I have yet to discover. For a while, I speculated that my father might have been Thornton Wilder, but as an adult playwright, knowing more about Thornton Wilder now, I think that’s unlikely.
I now believe, in a profound sense, that my father did “die” the day that Rosie said so. That day marked the beginning of my life with my now-declared-single mother. She lit a memorial candle that flamed for 24 hours, and that was it. I asked if we should pray for him, and she said, “That won’t be necessary.”
In fact, Rosie was very soon on the lookout for handsome men. We went out to spot them in the park. It was like bird watching: “There’s a handsome one,” she would whisper. “Look over there-he’s playing tennis!” We would often picnic on these man-watching expeditions and, once prone, she would speak her bedroom voice; she could take pauses with a sexual hush. “You have his eyes,” she once said. My mother had a come-hither look, but when men came hither, she looked away.
I remember her dating only once, an occasion I fear I ruined. I couldn’t believe she would desert me for a strange man. How was it possible? Yet she had hired the teenage girl from the next-door apartment to “sit” me. I almost immediately flattened to the wall, red-faced and screaming. Rosie returned to an Exorcist-style scene of tossed crayons and recriminations.
The only other time I recall Rosie going out with a man, she took me along for the ride. We went to City Island and sat at a garden restaurant. I recall digging evilly in the tableside fernery and exchanging looks of complete understanding-pure hatred-with her new “Isn’t he handsome?” friend.
From then on, our weekend expeditions around the city were twosomes-I had my mother to myself, but not for long. The last outing was, in a way, the most prophetic. Rosie, dressed as always in a smart suit and city heels, took me for a long walk in Central Park’s Ramble. Somewhere deep in an urban version of a glen, we spread out our blanket; my mother lay back, semi-formally attired as she was, and “dozed off,” as she would put it. I seized the moment to explore the shadows that surrounded us and, in a few short steps, entered a cathedral quiet: a vast outdoor amphitheater shrouded by a canopy of dark leaves. I had lost my way. I was 8 years old, and time and distance could become illusions. Would she ever find me?
I employed a magic trick. If I concentrated on her name and image, I could will my mother to my side.
I summoned, and Rosie appeared-for the last time.
The next day, she entered a white brick hospital on the flank of the Bronx and never returned home. She left wearing a navy suit and high heels. She waved from the corner.
Two weeks later, she was buried “somewhere on the island’ in one of those congested cemeteries.
The next Mother’s Day, I wished I could skip school: Everyone’s head was bent over hand-drawn cards. I recalled my previous year’s effort: a real seashell from our last trip to Rockaway Beach, pasted with tulle on a drawing of my mother as a mermaid. The card said, “Oh to love a mother fair, combing her hair, with a comb of pearl … and her little girl.”
I still have the card, and now two daughters of my own-ages 12 and 14. I reflect that my girls have had me-also a single mother- x number of years longer than I shared my life with Rosie. Motherless children tell time by a different calendar: All dates are measured against one fatal day. This year, I will receive the hand-drawn cards, embellished by roses and sentiments, and vow to save them for as long as I live. For some of us, May 8 is Mother’s Day; for others, every day is.
Laura Shaine Cunningham is the author of a memoir, Sleeping Arrangements; a novel, Beautiful Bodies; and a just-published young-adult novel, The Midnight Diary of Zoya Blume (HarperCollins), about a girl whose mother vanishes one night.