The Perils of Mother's Day
Updated: Sep 11
by KATY RANK LEV
We're approaching that time of year when I can't watch television or thumb through magazines because of the commercials and advertisements. I avert my eyes from bus shelters and their ads, and refuse to scroll through Facebook. It’s all because of a gut-wrenching question: What will you get your mother for Mother's Day?
More than two years after she died, I still reach for the phone to call mom. I don't need billboards and jewelry stores peddling diamonds and roses. Then again, if Tiffany & Co. has my mother’s current contact info, please share.
Preparing for a trip always involved long gab sessions on the phone with mom, seeking advice on which color tops match navy blue slacks, venting on the dolts in the security line, promising to let her know I landed safely. There was so much to discuss.
The last time I stayed in an Airbnb, the artwork above the bed portrayed a Victorian woman pinching the nipple of another Victorian woman. I'd really like to text my mother that image.
When she died, I lost that one person who happily absorbed the millions of mundane things I needed to share every day, particularly from the road. Who can I call now when I see a mullet in line for coffee? Who will give me a pep talk before I try to woo a new client? A consummate planner, I bored my mother hashing out the agenda for a trip or asking what I might have missed on my packing list. She always listened. I never forgot spare undies.
"When she died, I lost that one person who happily absorbed the millions of mundane things I needed to share every day, particularly from the road."
But being a Motherless Jane in spring is different. It’s worse. Hallmark seems to be the world’s universal sponsor. Every establishment from Starbucks to Sbarro offers special Mother's Day promos and gift ideas. It’s not safe to go out until June. Whether it’s buying fancy soap, a scarf or a decadent pastry, the cashier or clerk is liable to ask if it’s a gift for mom. I know it’s just small talk. The well-meaning elderly ladies on airplanes don't want to make me cry by asking if I'm visiting my mother. They might even wish their own kids were heading to see them. But it still stings.
Rather than reply, "My mom's dead, but I've got some of her ashes in my carry-on," I usually stick with, "Nah," while trying to hold back the tears. I try not stare at older women hanging out with younger people because I think they’re on a trip with their adult children and it makes me jealous.
But in some ways, my mother's death made me a better traveler. My perspective is different now. What does a delay or a rescheduled meeting really matter in the long term? So what if I stash my car in the more expensive day lot or take the wrong exit while searching for a restroom? That kind of stuff used to drive me nuts.
Last fall, I did fly with some of my mother’s ashes, to Colorado. I scattered them in Telluride. Because it was all about grief and healing, it felt appropriate to cry in public, claim alone time and speak frankly to curious strangers.
Business travel is such a different headspace. We're supposed to appear and act professional while dealing with grief. Or personal inquiries. Any conversation beyond the weather is a potential land mine (even weather talk can send me down a wormhole, remembering how mom loved the smell of summer rain). As the bearer of grief, it doesn't take much to be perceived as a Debbie Downer.
You're under pressure to represent your company and your work. You're in an unfamiliar place, "on" for days at a time. Add the sting of a dead mom during Mother's Day and I risk appearing aloof. All social interaction is fraught. While preparing for a trip to Providence, I feel like I'm doing more work bracing for small talk. How might I respond if the car rental agent asks something mom-related? Maybe I shouldn’t care what others think. Nobody wants to be the Jane who cried during happy hour.
So, apart from booking an underground bunker for most of the spring, what's the solution? Is there some happy medium between sobbing to my seatmate and becoming a hermit? My grief counselor would probably encourage me to use the nonviolent communication formula and set firm conversational boundaries. My dead-parents support group might encourage me to send self-righteous group texts when a flower vendor accosts me in the subway. For now, I'm practicing steering conversations toward safe topics. So far I've got constipation and female pilots.
Motherless Janes, I'm sorry we're in this shitty club together. But I would love to know your coping strategies as that day approaches.