Missing Mom

For those whose mothers have died, the May holiday can be an occasion of both grief and remembrance

Family Matters

May 09, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

For the first time today, Chuck Morton will not attend a festive brunch or dinner at his mother's house on Mother's Day. Instead, he will attend a church that is not his own, but where his mother, Mary Margaret Morton, worshipped often.

Surrounded by his wife and four children, the corporate lawyer will plant a dogwood tree in his back yard in Cedarcroft -- the kind of gardening project his mother found "optimistic."

These are the strange new rituals of Mother's Day for a son who has lost his mother. Mary Margaret, known as Peggy, died unexpectedly after surgery three months ago. She was 57.

For those whose mothers have died, Mother's Day is a bittersweet occasion.

It's a day of feeling left out of traditions like giving gifts, sending flowers and taking Mom to dinner. Even the good memories that flood back often bring with them a serving of fresh grief.

It is a dilemma that thousands of people face anew each year. More than 1.2 million women over the age of 25 died in the United States in 2002, the last year for which data were available, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But in recent years, some newly motherless people have started rituals of their own to honor mothers who have died.

Groups in cities such as Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles observe "Motherless Daughters Day" the day before Mother's Day, with luncheons that encourage people to share their memories. At a set time, those in attendance form a circle and say what often goes pointedly unsaid on Mother's Day: Their mothers' names.

"Until recently, there's been no socially acceptable way to celebrate Mother's Day when your mother has died," said Hope Edelman, who helped spawn the movement with a book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss.

"I think when women try to deny [a mother's] importance on that day because she's no longer living, we create cognitive dissonance for ourselves," Edelman said. "To exclude her from that day feels wrong for most of these women, because it's not socially sanctioned and they feel lost."

Morton, 38, hopes his way of observing Mother's Day this year will become a tradition -- one that assures the life of his mother, who worked her way through college while the single parent of four children, always will be celebrated.

"There are sort of bittersweet aspects to it," he said. "Hopefully, I will take fewer things for granted."

Tradition of carnations

Mother's Day actually began as a memorial observance. Anna Reeves Jarvis had organized "work days" for mothers in West Virginia to heal the divisions of the Civil War, and often spoke of wanting to establish a day to honor mothers.

When she died on May 9, 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, took up the cause. The first Mother's Day service took place at a Methodist Episcopal church in Grafton, W.Va., two years later, with Jarvis sending 500 white carnations for those in attendance to wear. Jarvis later decried the commercialism she said had overtaken the simple meaning of Mother's Day.

White carnations became a symbol, to be worn in church on Mother's Day, of a mother who had died. That symbol became a stigma, said Edelman, for many children who wished they could wear the pink or red flowers that symbolized living mothers instead.

Even without that floral marker, the day can be difficult.

Last Mother's Day, Lea Gilmore, a nonprofit consultant, had stopped in at the drugstore because she was out of rubber bands. Rite Aid was unusually crowded, and it took Gilmore a moment to realize why: Everyone was buying last-minute Mother's Day cards.

Gilmore left without the rubber bands, retreating to her car in tears. Her mother, Vetta Bradley, a retired microbiologist, had passed away the month before at the age of 73.

Gilmore, 38, of Windsor Mill, has no particular plan to avoid similar associations this year, other than to try to enjoy time with her own children.

"I can't prepare for it because I don't know how I'm going to handle it," she said. "I do know this year I've come to smile a lot more when I think of her, rather than cry."

Luesta Owens, on the other hand, has factored her late mother into her Mother's Day plans. Today Owens and her two sisters will attend St. Bernardine's Church in West Baltimore, where every Mother's Day, a Mass is celebrated in honor of their mother, Luet Blanding. She was 81 when she died of cancer three years ago on the Thursday before Mother's Day.

Then, an extended family group of 35 will head to the Old Country Buffet on Baltimore National Pike to swap scrapbooks, photographs and stories about the matriarch over a meal.

"If a mother is really good to you, you try to remember," said Owens, 59. "It makes it a little easier to accept."

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