The Mother’s Day I remember best from my childhood was when I was 8 or 9 and trying so hard to be a good daughter. I banished my mom from the kitchen and stirred up a chocolate cake mix, poured the batter into a pan, right up to the rim, placed it in the oven and soon smelled smoke. Peering through the little window, I saw my cake overflowing its pan, fat dollops of goo dropping to the floor of my mother’s once-clean oven, catching fire and charring the gray enamel.
My son is now the age I was at the Mother’s Day Cake Catastrophe, but he is a very different child, one who would not think of crafting a cake surprise. He’s too busy getting through May Mayhem, that period when schools schedule an onslaught of end-of-the-year events, and he holds himself so conscientiously together around his teachers and peers that he has to unwind sometime, somewhere, and that time and place is every day at home, where we experience a season of “No!” and “I won’t!” and “Aaaaugh!”
Despite his predictability and my awareness of it, when Mother’s Day nears I still imagine us somehow pulling off a picture-perfect day. Two hours in, though, I am sitting in church watching my son singing in the children’s choir, and as he fidgets with his tie and yawns and stretches, I know he is engaged in a herculean effort to focus on yet one more event, and I sweat for him, in my mind pulling him through every phrase, every measure.
The children around him are standing as still as statues (really!), only their mouths opening and closing, eyes barely blinking, and I catch a glimpse of one of their mothers across the sanctuary. She has the face of a cherub, and that face is beaming at her angelic bundle of growing-up joy, and for a moment I hate her. (God, forgive me.) And in the moment of my hating her for her perfect little life (which I know is not perfect at all, and this of course brings on the guilt), my thoughts are interrupted by the woman sitting in front of me who leans back and, pointing her chin at my son, asks, “Is he having a problem?”
Then, the song is over, and my son’s eyes meet mine, and I offer him what I hope is my most beatific smile. Not because everything has gone so well, because clearly it has not, but because I love him.
Much later, after a few quiet tears (mine) and after enjoying a fancy spinach-ricotta tart baked — without incident — by my husband and son, I reread my son’s Mother’s Day card and notice that above his carefully scrawled name, he has declared his love for me. Looking at it more carefully than before, I see that when he wrote the word “love” he had to take more than one run at it, because the v is muddled, as if it might have started out as a w or something else altogether. And that is when it hits me: even in its messiness — actually, because of its messiness — it is exactly right.
Days do not often go as we imagine or plan, and our relationships are not always what we hope for them to be. But we hold tight to one another and recognize each other’s efforts for what they are: our best attempts at love.