As I write this letter to you today, I’m sitting at a desk in Scotts Valley, California, on the campus of a serene retreat center surrounded by redwoods. Eight women have gathered here to write the stories of their lives, several of them about early mother loss. It’s brave, hard work, excavating and revisiting the past. Outside my living room window, a single redwood tree stands tall, and every morning when I walk outside I think of the epilogue of Motherless Daughters, when a park ranger at Muir Woods tells the story of how redwoods grow. She explainsed how a circle of daughters sprout around the central mother tree, and how the mother’s subterranean roots continue to nourish the daughters even after her branches and leaves have died.
I think about this metaphor often, about how much my mother’s legacy still sustains me even after all these years, and how I hope I’ll offer the same to my daughters one day.
Naturally this is on my mind this week, as Mother’s Day approaches, and as I think of all of you, watching the calendar, too. This isn’t always an easy weekend for those of us whose mothers have died, or whose mothers are estranged or couldn’t offer us what we needed as her daughters. That’s a very real form of mother loss, too.
For many years I hid from Mother’s Day, unable to find a place for myself or for the predictable percolations of grief that started bubbling up just before the second Sunday in May. And sometimes there was anger, too — anger over what my family had lost, what other families still had, and the bombardment of reminders every time I walked into a Walgreen’s or a CVS. And then would came shame for feeling angry or envious, and then sadness all over again.
When I became a mother, it was blessedly easy to let the holiday’s focus shift toward celebrating my bond with my daughters. There’s truly nothing I’d rather do than spend a day with them, so for the next twenty years Mother’s Day became about us. Which has been a gift. And a relief. I let myself catapult straight from ‘Mother’s Day, boo,’ to ‘Mother’s Day, Yay!‘, from forcefully pushing my mother away to allowing myself to step past her. In the process, she was left behind. I began to forget that this day was about her, too.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking at the annual “Missing Our Mothers, Daughters Remember” breakfast in Philadelphia sponsored by VITAS Healthcare. About 180 women were in attendance this year, until VITAS played a beautiful photo slide show of all the women’s mothers and suddenly, 360 women filled the room. Just like that, our number doubled. Mothers in graduation gowns, mothers on family beach vacations, mothers at their daughter’s weddings — we were all deeply moved by the volume of history and relationships that flashed across the screen. The photos were all of mothers who had died, yet they were also, undeniably, photos of women who had lived rich and vibrant lives. We’d come together that morning to honor them all.
My mother wasn’t just a mother who died; she was also a woman who lived. This sentence took hold in my mind that morning in Philadelphia, and has been echoing ever since. Yes, my mom died when I was seventeen. But she also lived for forty two years before that fateful event, and those 15,330 days were filled with activities and friendships and family. She was much more than just my mom. She was also a child who was quick to smile. She was a teenager who listened to classical music, and an adult who loved Cocker Spaniels, York peppermint patties, and playing mah johngg every Tuesday night with her friends. She taught herself how to dance The Hustle. She played a mean shuffleboard. She loved southern Florida. I mean she loved it there. Whenever we went down on family vacation, she would step out of the airport in West Palm Beach and immediately tilt her face toward the sun.
A whole world existed inside of her. For a long time, it hurt too much to acknowledge this, a searing reminder of the scope and depth of what was lost. Fortunately, it’s all still there, patiently waiting to be accessed, and it doesn’t mind if I choose selectively. So this Mother’s Day morning, when I’m driving my older daughter home from college, I’ll tell her stories about her Grandma Marcia’s history. Not just as my mother, or her grandmother, but as a woman in her own right. When we arrive home in Los Angeles that afternoon, I’ll tell my younger daughter these stories about her grandmother, too. I’ll pick up a York Peppermint Patty, and we’ll split it in thirds, to share.
There’s no ready-made place on Mother’s Day for a mother who has died, or for one with whom we have no contact. This is true. But it also means we’re free to create a day that’s all our own. I’ll be trying a new approach this year. I invite you to create one that’s meaningful for you, too.
If you’re feeling mixed emotions about Mother’s Day this year, please know you’re not alone. A recurrence of grief is completely normal. Sunday may be an especially challenging day if it’s your first Mother’s Day without your mom. The longing may feel especially painful this weekend. Please be gentle with yourself. Try to plan something that nurtures you, however small. Feel whatever comes up, and let it pass through you. It will pass through, eventually. It will.
Whether your loss occurred very recently or in the distant past, a large and widespread network of motherless daughters will be standing in solidarity with you this weekend. Some will be gathering for special in-person events this Saturday. If you’re attending the Motherless Daughters tea in San Francisco, I look forward to seeing you there!
Other breakfasts and luncheons are taking place in cities ranging from New York to Detroit to Vancouver, BC. You can access a comprehensive listing here. (Please scroll down to see it.) If you can’t make it to a luncheon or there isn’t one near you, you’re invited to join me along with hundreds of women worldwide in a Circle of Remembrance on my Facebook Author’s page on Saturday starting at 8:30 a.m.
And please consider joining Claire Bidwell Smith, co-founder of Motherless Daughters Retreats, and I on a free conference call Saturday morning at 9 a.m. PST/12 p.m. EST. It’s open to anyone facing Mother’s Day without a mother and will offer gentle support this weekend. For call-in details, click here.
A Motherless Daughters Retreat is an in-depth experience for women who were up to age 21 when their mothers died. It’s especially profound for those who were not allowed or unable to grieve as children or teens. The opportunity to sit in a large circle of women who share similar histories and support one another in their growth efforts is extraordinary. Two retreats are currently on the calendar for 2018 — August in Los Angeles and September in Connecticut. I’d love to see you at either one!
Sending big love to you this coming weekend and beyond, and holding all of you close in my heart,