She made my wedding dress from four magazine photos and no pattern. She designed and installed draperies for my high school’s auditorium. When I started a new school in fifth grade, she presented all twenty-four of my new classmates with a handmade Christmas gift. Today, I can’t be sure that I said so much as a “thank you” for any of the above, but she seemed to take it in stride. She was my mother, and that was simply what mothers did.
Adopted as an infant by a barren woman of forty, I was my parents’ long awaited miracle. Though a “daddy’s girl” for a lifetime, my mother taught me so many things: the importance of church work, setting a proper table, understanding the intricacies of our family tree, manners and etiquette and writing thank-you notes. She tried to teach me to finish seams, make darts, set in zippers, and embroider. Together we read the Bible, memorizing new verses each week. We prayed for home and foreign missionaries, took casseroles to the sick and the dying and my outgrown clothes to “less fortunate” little girls in the community.
“Be Ye Doers of the Word,” my mother would sing in her scratchy, non-musical voice, followed by “Every Day with Jesus” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Hide it under a bushel? No! I never quite understood what it meant, but I fell in step with the order and routine of being a good girl, from a good family, doing all the right things that showed the world she was a good mother, raising me right. She was a very good mother. Yet perhaps her greatest acts of maternal devotion were those never seen by the rest of the world and known only to me.
Fifth grade, that monumental year of discovering that away from my home, my church, and my tiny community, I seemed to amount to nothing at all. Just before Christmas, I finally felt a minuscule flash of accomplishment, winning an essay contest sponsored by the regional DAR. My teacher, my mother, and I were “treated” to a lovely lunch of rubber chicken and green beans at a local chapter meeting, where after reading from my essay I was given a medal and a savings bond. (I wondered if other fifth graders would find this event interesting: My guess was NO.)
About to decide that I’d rather have been at school with my non-friendly classmates, one of the DAR officials seated at our table began to drill my mother on our family history. When they asked about our lineage, my mother talked of the family Bible, birth, death and marriage certificates, boxes of letters and photos, and a hundred-year genealogy she’d completed though never published. A kind, blue-haired lady began to explain census records, military service records, and how to contact the vital records office for hard copies constituting proof of what my mother already knew. We left the meeting with a large manila envelope of DAR info, and my mother was positively radiant at the prospect of becoming the Revolution’s newest daughter. I was confused but a little proud, too; my mother seldom got excited over anything for herself.
Her energy grew continually in the coming weeks. I’d come home from school each day to younger, happier woman who had cleared the dining room table (used a half dozen times a year for meals and serving as layout area for sewing projects the rest of the time) and covered it in Xeroxed legal documents, yellowing letters, old photos and an elongated family tree, a map-like genealogy diagram held together from the back with Scotch-brand invisible tape. The tree seemed to grow longer and more elaborate on a daily basis.
As quickly as the whirlwind began, it ended. I came home from school one day, and the dining room was cleared of all but a navy polyester, its sixty inch width doubled and covered with a Butterick dress pattern she was pinning to it. A new dress for me.
“What happen to all the family stuff?” I asked. “Did you finish your work and get it all sent in?” The project had practically consumed her for three weeks. It had surely taken the better part of a day just to put away the mounds of artifacts.
“Oh, that,” she said, sounding nonchalant to the point of boredom. I didn’t get it.
“I decided it was a waste of time and effort,” she said. “Who cares if about proving where we came from? Just knowing it was enough for my mother, her mother and all those before. It’ll be good enough for me, too.”
I thought a heard a glitch in her voice, and I was sure the glassy look in her eyes was the product of stifled tears, but I was in fifth grade. When things got awkward, we simply walked away.
“I’m going to my room, lots of homework,” I lied. My mother nodded, never looking me in the eye, intent on lifting the scissors, then guiding them around the paper pattern and through the cloth.
It would be years before we discussed that day or the DAR again, but my father told me later that night that she had made a decision not to pursue membership in the organization.
“But why?” I asked. “It’s all she’s talked about since the day we went to that lunch thing. She was so crazy-excited about it. What happened?”
He looked it me with that weird, dazed look he always got when singing the praises of my mother. I hated that look; it made me feel weird, and embarrassed and a little jealous.
“Your mother loves you more than anything else on this earth,” he said. “She found out, after she got all her documents in order, that because you were adopted, the lineage to the DAR stops with her. It doesn’t descend to non-blood relatives.”
I felt tears sting my eyes as I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“But I don’t care about being in the DAR,” I said. “Why can’t she just do it for herself? I mean, after she did all the work and all…”
“I figured as much, and tried to tell her, but it was no use. Your mother wants no part in an organization that doesn’t recognize you.”
Life went on, and like I said, it was years before we talked about the DAR. It was like the whole event never happened.
I grew up. I’d like to say we became closer through the years, but that would be a lie. Face to face, I always felt as though I never quite measured up, never towed the line in the Southern Baptist, homemaker, church worker and do-gooder tradition set before me. It seemed no matter what I did, I was always slightly under par. My oldest daughter filled in the gap, growing closer to my mother than I would ever be. On her deathbed, she called me by my daughter’s name.
Yet I know that when I wasn’t there, was not standing with her, face-to-face, I did measure up. I was a half-century old before I realized her judgments were all an act. I was always the miracle of her life, even if she didn’t tell me. When she spoke of me to anyone else, the President, the Secretary of Education, even Rodgers & Hammerstein dulled in comparison. But she never told me – guess it would’ve gone to my head.
Not much of an excuse for never saying thank you. But it’s the only one I have.
Another year, another Mother’s Day. Why is it that every year, I seem to remember more and more things for which I never said thank you, and I have a feeling it will only get worse?
My mother attended two years of teacher’s college, yet she drew floor plans for her house, did “bookkeeping” for several mid-sized businesses and did her best to teach an ungrateful daughter all the more important facets of honest, Christian living.
Mom, I really did learn – it just took a long time for the learning to take effect. Thank you, Mother, for everything. Whatever good is in me today, it all started with you. Thank you.
Happy Mother’s Day!