It’s Mother’s Day and, as usual, I’m prepared. The tulips I ordered so many days ago arrived right on time on Mother’s Day Eve, as FTD wasn’t offering Sunday delivery. As long as all the neighbors in my mom’s Floridian retirement community knew the occasion of her delivery, all added value was milked. Granted, Dora did not get as big a bang out of this year’s holiday as last year’s, when both my older brother and I visited for the weekend. But mission accomplished — and I do mean that in the traditional, non-ironic sense.
Though I’ve heard from an assortment of killjoys over my years that Mother’s Day is crass commercialization of what was once a noble intention, and nothing more, I still enjoy it. That may be the bond between a son and his mother. That the phrase ”momma’s boy” is usually delivered as a sneer, whereas ”daddy’s little girl” sounds as wholesome as organic cupcakes, is just more evidence of patriarchy. And despite what shouts of ”I told you so” may come from the Family Research Council, I’ve always gotten along better with my mother than with my father. I certainly loved him, but that was a much more complicated rapport.
Mother’s Day reminds me that aside from my biological mother — who will always come first with flowers, visits, Chanel and the like — I am reminded at this time of year that other women I have known also deserve some measure of maternal recognition.
First, there was my sister, Megan, nine years my senior. My brother was off to college by the time I turned 7, leaving my sister and me home alone to ride out the last couple years of my parents’ marriage. Her seniority made her more a surrogate mother than sister, which was fine, as she was really good at it. She was a great cook, my greatest political influence — I was the only kid my sixth grade class who understood that then Secretary of the Interior James Watt was an asshole, thanks to her — and psychologically astute to the point that she convinced me it was cooler for me to read quietly than to annoy her.
Second, I owe some thanks to Robin, my stepmother. She made summers with dad much more bearable. Summer of 1985, when I turned 16, comes to mind particularly. First, she granted a reprieve after my first day of a four-day march my father had drafted me into. This commemorative hike through a Belgian forest would not have been so bad, except that I’d not been forewarned. I hiked 20 miles through muddy woodland in jeans and a pair of Reeboks. Having started out earlier in the day, she was waiting at the first-day finish line for my hiking buddy and me. And while that buddy and I had spent the previous night in a military barracks, wishing we had sleeping bags, Robin’s hotel room was right there. She excused us from the remaining three days of the hike and even managed to convince the cook at this woodsy little inn to loan me his pants so that I could wash the mud out of my own.
More importantly, during that same summer, I believe it was she who managed to dissuade my father from his longtime promise — or threat, depending on one’s perspective — of taking me to an Amsterdam sex worker for my 16th birthday. If I could’ve chosen a guy (definitely not an option) it might have been okay, albeit somewhat creepy to pair a 16-year-old with a prostitute, no matter the other variables. I owe her big for that.
Finally, I think of Mrs. Rasmussen. Her name was Beth, but I could never bring myself to drop the title, though I had no trouble switching to Ms. when she and her husband separated. Mrs. Rasmussen was the mother of my dear friend, Chris, whom I met in high school in New Port Richey, Fla. My relationship with her mother eventually moved along an independent trajectory. Chris, and for that matter, her older sister, Jennifer, might not be home for the same college holiday as I was, but I could still drop in on Mrs. Rasmussen and sit for hours over a pot of coffee and cigarettes — which likely contributed to her premature death and which I’d picked up during that same Belgian summer. I’ve since quit, mostly.
Regardless, she had a warmth and openness about her that I’ve not seen in anyone since. I credit her with teaching me to embrace people easily. Growing up, my dad might’ve been more physically affectionate than Mom, but he was also the only one who would hit me. I came to associate my mother’s Swiss stiffness, of which only a hint remains these decades later, with normalcy and safety. Huggers, on the other hand, must surely be hitters. But damn my personal space, she was going to hug my too-cool-for-school teenage badness no matter, and do it with sincerity.
There are many other women, and a few men, who’ve shown me maternal love in my life. I’ve come to see paternal love as a flavor that is more agenda-oriented — ”Let’s teach you how to” throw a ball, change a tire, play poker, etc. — but also friendlier and more permissive. Not bad at all. Maternal love, however, is the sort of love that goes as deep as our survival instincts. It’s probably not so rational, and I doubt it’s ever conditional, whatever threats a mother may level. Whatever it is, I’m grateful to have received so much of it.
Will O’Bryan, Metro Weekly‘s managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists. He can be reached at email@example.com