For millions of sons and daughters, Sunday will be a day for superlatives and sentiment. With cards and gifts, phone calls and flowers, they'll send heartfelt messages to their mothers with variations on an annual theme: "Happy Mother's Day with much love."
But for those who no longer have mothers to honor in person, the day will take on a different cast. It could even go by a different name: Mother's Day Without Mother. Familiar rituals have disappeared from their springtime routine: scanning racks of pastel greeting cards for just the right message, or heading to the mall in search of the ideal gift. They must find other ways to celebrate the mothers who once sat across the table or chatted on the other end of the phone line.
In the process, many find that rather than being an occasion for sadness and loss, the day becomes a time to cherish memories.
"The first Mother's Day alone is tough in many ways," recalls a friend in suburban Boston. "But time mellows sorrow, and now I think about the happy times she gave me as I was growing up and as an adult." She adds, "It always bothers me when someone says, 'Oh, I'm becoming just like my mother.' If someone ever said that about me, I'd consider it the greatest compliment in the world."
A teacher in the Midwest who felt bereft the first Mother's Day after her mother's passing now says, "I think about how devoted she was to us. We were always in her thoughts. But she let us move on and live our own lives." This woman remembers the joy her mother found in spending time with grandchildren. She also thinks fondly of the childhood gifts she made for Mother's Day, among them a small basket filled with violets from a nearby woods, accompanied by a homemade card.
One friend in California finds herself thinking of small, touching details about her mother. She recalls rainy afternoons when her mother would walk to school with an umbrella for her and her brother. It was a long walk, but this was wartime, and the family had no car. Similarly, she remembers the distances her mother walked to buy groceries. So heavy were the string bags she carried that her hands would be covered with red marks by the time she returned home. Still, her mother didn't complain.
"These are silly little things to remember, but they're selfless," my friend says. "It's the selfless things I remember."
Other adult children echo that theme as they reflect on Mother's Day Without Mother. One man whose mother has been gone for many years says quietly that he still misses her. But as he thinks of her on the second Sunday in May, and on other days as well, "she becomes a loving presence in memory. That helps."
Mother's Day Without Mother can also be a time to reflect on changing roles and values. For women of my generation who came of age on the cusp of the women's movement, it was common to dream of lives that went beyond those of our mothers. We hoped to have children, of course, but we also sought careers and a wider world. We wanted more than the "I'm-just-a-housewife" label our homemaker mothers humbly - and wrongly - attached to themselves.
Yet today the qualities I most revere as I remember my mother are those related to her homemaking role, such as her equanimity and patience. I cherish the serenity, order, and beauty that filled the home she created. It's a hard act for 21st-century working daughters to follow as we race out the door at 7 a.m.
A friend in Illinois calls Mother's Day "no big deal of a holiday" now that her mother is gone. But when she and her brother take a weekly lunch-hour walk in the countryside near their workplace, they often share family memories. This week, she says, their conversation will certainly center on their mother.
Mother's Day Without Mother can also be a time to share memories and anecdotes with the next generation. "Remember the time Grandma....," we say, launching into a favorite story. On the second Sunday in May, passing the baton of family memories to those who will follow us just might be one of the best ways of honoring, in absentia, the beloved mothers and grandmothers who have preceded us.