Mother’s Day Shouldn’t be About Grief
I hung my head out the window to breathe the familiar scent of Hawaii. I don’t know what it is, but even in downtown Honolulu in bumper to bumper traffic, the air smells good, a blend of ocean and green wet leaves with a hint of something floral, plumeria or lilikoi. The air is moist and has a slight salty tang, like Southern California, but in Hawaii everything is impossibly green with frequent rains that make everything smell fresh and clean.
It was 2006 and it had been over 10 years since I’d visited the islands but as soon as we turned onto Kaonohi Drive everything felt familiar. I recognized Midgi’s house right away, a low-slung dark green house nestled among thick green tropical plants. As kids Debby and I spent as much time at Midgi and Tony’s as at our own house. Not only did they have daughters the same ages as my sister and I, they had a swimming pool, and they lived just a couple blocks away.
Midgi smiled and waved, “Come on in girls!” (both in our forties, Debby and I are still “the girls”).
There was no basket of socks at the front door like Mom had, but rather a stack of shoes reminding us of the custom in Hawaii to remove ours before entering.
“Mac’s out back cleaning the pool in case you girls want a swim and I’m making sandwiches. I hope you like egg salad.”
Tony had passed away a few years earlier and Mac, Midgi’s new partner, an avid diver, had added his own touches to the house, mostly shells and sea art, but much of the house remained the same: the green glass hanging lamp in the family room, rattan swivel chairs on the lanai, the Keene print of a dark haired girl with impossibly large round eyes in the foyer, the impossibly white carpet. It felt like home.
As Midgi spread egg salad onto whole wheat bread we talked about our plans for Christmas, about the drive out to the North Shore where Debby and I were house-sitting for the holidays.
Midgi reminds me of my mom. It’s not just her brunette hair—Midgi’s hair is now salt and pepper. Like my mom, Midgi is petite; she’s actually a couple inches shorter than my mom’s almost five feet. It’s something about her style, her bubbly personality, or maybe it’s something that women who grew up in the fifties all share, something I can’t quite define but know when I see it. They’re younger and hipper than the generation before them, and more reserved, more “put together” than the generation who came after.
There were so many things I wanted to ask Midgi: What did she remember most about my mom? What did they talk about? What did my mom dream about? What did she want for me? What drove her crazy? What was her favorite pizza? But I usually get quiet when my sister is around. I don’t know if it’s because she is the older sister, or the more outgoing sister, but I let Debby take the lead.
“We’ll eat out on the deck,” Midgi said, handing us each a plate.
“Great,” Debby and I said in unison, as we often do. Sometimes one of us will lightly punch the other in the arm and say “Jinx!”
We followed her through the dining room, down the stairs, past the living room, and out the sliding glass door to the wooden deck painted the same dark green it had always been. The view, the same one we’d had from our house overlooking Pearl Harbor from three miles up the hill.
Mac waved and said he’d join us when he finished the pool.
As soon as we sat down at the glass top café table Debby said, “Tell Midgi about your project. Don’t you have things you want to ask her?”
The project my sister was referring to was a manuscript that now, six years later, I’ve successfully defended as my dissertation, the final step towards receiving my MFA in creative writing. Reconstructing My Mother chronicles my journey to get to know my mother who died when I was 13. I had just begun the project; I was shy about my writing, not as confident in my project, in myself.
The sun was beating down on me. I could feel my skin burning already; I hadn’t sunscreened yet, destined, it seemed, to spend my time in Hawaii with a pink tint to my fair skin as I had when I was a child. I felt awkward, put on the spot, not unlike when my parents would trot us out to perform dance routines for guests. My sister loved the attention. I did not.
I didn’t want to do a formal interview over an egg salad sandwich. I wanted to take my time, process my memories, let the conversations and questions come more organically.
“I’m writing about Mom,” I said. “What do you remember most about her?”
“Oh! We had such good times!” Midgi said, laughing. “Remember that trip to the Big Island?”
Our families had vacationed on Hawaii, the largest of the eight Hawaiian Islands, in a cabin at the Kilauea Military Camp at Volcanoes National Park. I turned ten during that trip.
“Do you remember? When we stopped for gas? Midgi, still laughing. Debby and I laughing too.
I remembered. Four adults and four children in one small car (or maybe it only seemed small because there were eight of us!). I remembered bike riding and bowling, and touring the island: the macadamia nut farm, Rainbow Falls, the black sand beach and the volcano.
I remembered the five mile walk across Kilueaea’s crater, sulfery steam escaping from cracks in the land where tiny ferns grew as if it were a magical fairy forest amidst the barren volcano-scape where the lava flow left fallen trees and blackened land.
“Those guys,” Midgi said, shaking her head. “Your mom and I asked them to get some drinks and they came back with a six pack of beer for themselves and two colas for all us girls to share!”
If I think about this story too hard I can’t help but wonder what this says about my mom and dad’s relationship. I wonder if this story is really funny at all, but I laugh. I’m probably reading too much into it. Maybe my dad and Tony were joking around—they were always joking around.
“I remember that tandem bike. Dad trying to ride it by himself from the back seat,” Debby added. And we laughed some more.
Mac made his way around the pool slowly, quietly pulling up leaves with a net. The plumeria trees on the side hill were dormant for winter with yellowed leaves and only a few blooms too high to pick. Everything was more quiet than it used to be.
In my memory I see my mom and Midgi sitting at the pool’s edge, their feet dangling in the water. Lynn and I are doing handstands in the shallow end, Debby and Pam stretched out on towels tanning. Or maybe we kids are playing Marco Polo or practicing our cannon balls, the dogs chasing us around the pool, barking, nipping at our heels. My dad and Tony are drinking beer—Tony randomly scooping up of us girls who’s out of the water, dropping us back in. Everyone is laughing
Debby and Midgi and I laughed but there was a part of me that was feeling sad. I felt like Mom should have been with us reminiscing, telling stories around the swimming pool.
When you lose a mother at the age of 13, special times or certain days are always tinged with sadness. At least that’s the way it is for me. Mother’s Day is one of those days. It doesn’t help that companies like Hallmark and 1-800 Flowers inundate us with reminders on television and in newspapers, restaurants advertise Mother’s Day brunches. Even the grocery stores tout their special steaks and flowers just for mom. Some days I’m okay with it. I smile to myself and remember my mother fondly. But other times it feels like a plot to remind me of what I don’t have.
What I know now is that grieving is not about “getting over” a loss, grieving is learning to live with the loss, remembering the person you’ve lost, keeping that person in your life in some way, talking about your loved one, telling stories. You don’t go through five stages, you go through a hundred, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes backwards. You learn to live with grief; you make it your friend, or as Poet Matthew Dickman calls it, a purple gorilla:
When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what’s left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside,
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
Read more Matthew Dickman’s poem
Mother’s Day shouldn’t be about grief, but for me no matter how often I remind myself to celebrate my mother’s life, there’s always a part of me that is sad.
This Mother’s Day will be especially emotional. It will be the day after graduating from Graduate School. I will have walked across the stage wearing an ugly black polyester gown and a funny hat, I’ll have picked up a mock diploma, and been “hooded” by my committee chair, a process that sounds medieval. I will have been surrounded by close friends from my MFA program and professors who have been my mentors. My sister Debby (who lives in Chicago) and my good friend Ralph (who lives in San Diego) will have cheered me from the audience. It will have been a good day.
I have much to celebrate: I’ve finished that dissertation, I’ve learned a lot about literature and writing, and I’ve grown as a person these last 4 years. I have great friends and family near and far who are celebrating with me. I have a nice little house, a cute little car, two cats and a dog. But still…. There is something missing, something always missing, and the question, what would my mom think of me now? always lingers.
Jennifer Simpson received her MFA from University of New Mexico. Reconstructing My Mother is her memoir chronicling her journey to get to know her mother who died when she was 13.