Thirty years ago, my mum put my brother and I on a plane in Vancouver to meet my father in Australia, trusting us to the care of flight attendants. The airline staff gave us colouring books and put stickers on our chests with the initials “U.M.”
“What does that stand for?” my brother asked me anxiously.
I was a precocious wordsmith. “Utterly Mum-less” I pronounced, and his eyes widened. A friendly stewardess corrected me. “Unaccompanied Minor,” she explained and gave us some candy.
Two years ago my brother and I found ourselves truly and utterly mum-less. Our 73-year-old mother died far ahead of the schedule we’d been mentally preparing for. Her death turned Mother’s Day upside down.
I myself am not a mother, but I’d always loved surprising my own mum with cards, gifts, and outings year-round. One of the deepest cuts while packing up her house last year was finding a sheaf of birthday and Mother’s Day cards from over the decades. I now see the sadder side of a day I’d already viewed as a trite Hallmark holiday: the solemn faces of the people not buying cards and flowers; the women who hoped to become mothers and didn’t or couldn’t; the daughters and sons far less fortunate than me, born to mothers they didn’t love, or who didn’t love them. And of course, there are the women like me who lost one of their best friends when their mothers died, who already feel that loss keenly on their own birthdays and hers, now getting a bonus sad reminder on the second Sunday in May.
Last Mother’s Day I rashly went out for brunch with a friend, also childless, and her husband whose mother had died not long before mine. The popular breakfast spot was teeming with families.
“Is this a bad idea?” he asked.
“Screw it,” I said. “I feel like having someone else make me pancakes today.”
The waitress came to take our order, looking frazzled.
“And is there a mother at the table?” she asked, her eyes flicking over the female faces and registering the absence of any little people seated with us. She looked sheepish. “It’s 10% off for mothers today,” she explained.
I was feeling belligerent and bereft.
“Our mothers died last year,” I said flatly. “Can we get the discount?”
Inexcusable! My belated apologies to our waitress. But grief does that, makes you selfish and reckless, desperate to unburden yourself by unloading some of the pain onto others.
Another grieving daughter, Meghan O’Rourke wrote an essay for Slate pitching the term “unmothered” as a replacement for “motherless,” since those of us making our way through our adult years without our mothers feel their absence profoundly, but reject the implication that we never had them in the first place. They are still with us every day, we just can’t call them up or hug them, we can’t take them to brunch. Of course, in the natural course of things everyone will end up motherless and very few of us will be ready when it happens. There is no way to be ready. What we can do is be sensitive to those who, like me and many others, will be drifting around unmothered on the day everyone else is bestowing bouquets and greeting cards.
In fact, I think I can do better than “unmothered” and “motherless.” I learned long ago, I wasn’t utterly mum-less for those long flights with my brother, I was merely unaccompanied. This is true again today. I had a mother, an amazing mother, and I have her still. I have her full love and support, I just have to travel the rest of this distance on my own.