I always thought of my mother as a crazy person – a slightly disorganized, chronically late, constantly nagging crazy person.
She’s the kind of person who has a cabinet full of thank-you notes that will never actually get mailed and craft projects that are always almost finished. In fact, the old adage “a day late and a dollar short” was first said about my mother. I have been dropped off and picked up late from every function I’ve ever attended – occasionally I wasn’t picked up at all. Her life operates on a ten-minute delay – and that’s if the traffic lights are in her favor – and I’m pretty sure the road that’s “paved with good intentions” is her driveway.
She was so excited this year when the package she sent my kids for St. Patrick’s Day actually arrived on March 17th. Of course, it contained their Valentine’s Day cards, but why get bogged down in the details? A month late is nothing compared to projects in my childhood. When I was two years old, she began making me a stuffed cloth Easter basket. As usual, she “got a little behind,” and the basket wasn’t finished in time for me to use that Easter, or the next. I would find the scraps of Strawberry Shortcake fabric jammed into the bottom of her sewing basket on random occasions when I was attempting to replace a missing button. I would roll my eyes and ask if I should throw the pieces away, but she never let me. She was always going to make it for next year. Needless to say, the basket never saw an actual egg hunt.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to be on top of things; it’s just that she has too many pots on the stove – none of which contains anything you’d ever want to eat. We’re talking about a woman who can kill a roast at 20 paces. Leftover lunches didn’t fare much better. Other kids traded their snacks in elementary school, but one look in my lunch box and kids just gave me food out of pity. I was perhaps the only college student in America who looked forward to fall break and a nice restaurant-cooked meal.
More recently, my mother has started to call to report my local weather to me, in case I haven’t looked out the window, or to let me know some amazing breakthrough in the world of herbal supplements that she saw on Dr. Oz. These calls are actually preferable to the ones where she gives parenting advice that is the exact opposite of what I’m actually doing or that she would have done.
For a long time I thought my mom was maybe a little slow, unreasonably tired, or just plain scatterbrained. For a long time I thought it was a character flaw and that surely everyone else’s mother arrived early for pick-up, whisked them off to a delicious gourmet meal and spent her evening scrapbooking their summer vacation.
And then I had my first child.
I remember holding her in the middle of the night, my head nodding as I rocked her back to sleep for what seemed like hours, feeling like no one could understand how badly I wanted to crawl back into bed, how much I was giving of myself for this child. Suddenly the realization slammed into me like a ton of bricks: Someone did this for me. Yes, someone woke every time I cried, and fed me and held me and rocked me through the night. That someone did the same for my younger siblings, knowing she had to get up just a few hours later to get her older children off to school, knowing she’d never get to crawl back into bed and she’d be exhausted all day. Yet when I would catch her napping briefly in the afternoon, I would think she was lazy.
The truth is, before you become a mother you can’t possibly imagine how hard it is to be one. There’s that moment when you find yourself left alone with a delicate alien, searching in vain for an instruction manual, and you realize that your mother, who seemed to have all the answers (even though you didn’t like most of them), was simply making it up as she went along. And slowly, with each step and misstep you take as a parent, you understand your own mother in so many new ways.
Motherhood is a paradox, a give and take of the mind and the heart that a child can’t understand and often misinterprets. For how can someone not remember to wash your soccer uniform in time for the game but remember to call you every year at the exact time of your birth? How can someone whose cooking you complained about the night before drive all the way to school to deliver your forgotten lunchbox? How can someone who cried through your entire first day of kindergarten let you move across the country after college to follow your dreams?
Her behavior didn’t make sense when I was younger, but now I see so clearly …
My baby book wasn’t empty because she was disorganized. My baby book was empty because she was busy. Busy helping me walk, teaching me to talk, reading to me, singing to me, playing with me. Loving me. She wasn’t recording my life because she was busy living it with me.
She didn’t cook gourmet meals because all children want is chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, and by dinner time the adults are too frazzled to care.
She was late for pick-up because my little brother had a screaming fit about his sock being crooked or the baby had a diaper explosion when she was walking out the door.
She wasn’t the class mom because she had younger kids at home and still worked a part-time job so we could afford to go to Disney World.
She wasn’t disorganized; she was trying to do 25 things at once with a bunch of kids calling her name nonstop and no Internet to distract them.
And now … she calls about the weather because she misses those voices every day. She misses the chaos and the clutter, the tea parties and the T-ball games. No one runs off the bus and jumps into her arms, no one asks her to sing them to sleep at night. She gave up most of her life to make sure her babies were happy and safe and loved, and now they can live without her for days and sometimes they push her calls to voicemail.
I understand now, with all that a mother does just to keep her family on track, that she might not have time to do things like hand-sew a child’s Easter basket, and yet, one Easter I opened a package to find she had done just that.
I was 22 years old.
I can see her in my mind, up late following a 20-year-old pattern, hands cramping trying to fill it with stuffing, rushing off to the post office at the very last minute to make sure it didn’t miss another Easter. Sweet as the gesture was, I didn’t really understand why she would go to the trouble all these years later … until my own kids started needing me less.
And then I understood.
She sent me that basket so that I can always remember that she will never forget.
Now as I unpack it every year, that basket is a symbol of the little girl I will always be to her, a testament to a mother’s devotion. It is the greatest gift I have ever received.