Today is my first motherless birthday.
The weight of those words has been lingering in the shadows, creeping up on me as the calendar page flips from August to September and the chill of fall permeates darkened nights. I’ve been pretty good at evading the thought as life returns to its natural state of busy: school begins, work begins, activities begin.
But that also means that birthday season begins and mine has arrived today.
My mom is gone.
I am officially motherless on the day my mom gave me life.
I have always loved celebrations. My childhood was a bit disjointed with divorced/remarried parents, but I remember those few occasions where my mom felt comfortable enough to open the door and host a birthday party for me and my friends.
They were carefully orchestrated events, mind you, as my mom was a detail-oriented planner and masked the dysfunction so beautifully not a single person knew what really happened in our home.
I remember my 6th birthday when I was allowed to wear a paper princess crown and pretty party dress. My mom and stepfather had been married for almost a year.
I remember my 9th birthday when I was allowed to have some of my friends spend the night. Even though I was “the new kid” in town, I was delighted to receive the “yes” RSVPs and my mom planned games with prizes for us to win.
It was the first, and only, birthday sleepover I remember.
I remember my 16th birthday when I was allowed to invite every single person from marching band into my home and was shocked when so many people wanted to attend. It was a night filled with music, laughter, and fun; I never wanted it to end.
When I turned 18 it was just my mom and I sharing a private meal at The Jefferson Hotel, marking my transition into adulthood and her separation from my stepfather. The bruises on her skin were no longer visible, but the lacerations on her life were open wounds. It was a pivotal birthday for us both. We were at the crossroads of change: mine filled with promise, hers filled with despair.
I wish we had taken a photo of us together that day.
As my childhood came to a close, I realized I didn’t have a single photo of us together on my birthday.
When I turned 21, we finally had someone take a picture of us celebrating my birthday. My mom was 39 years old, a recovering alcoholic, still picking up the pieces from a suicide attempt a year and a half before.
I am older today than she was in that photo.
No matter how crazy things were, no matter what was going on in her world, my mom always had a yearly tradition of calling me on my birthday, right at the moment I was born: 3:01 pm. If I didn’t answer the phone, she would leave a voice message, making sure I knew that she was thinking of me RIGHT when I came into this world.
As technology advanced, she would leave me Facebook messages, timing it just right so they posted exactly at 3:01 pm. It’s a sweet memory that makes my heart ache a little today, as I know there will be no more 3:01 pm messages from her.
When my mom turned 60, I returned the birthday blessings by taking her back to The Jefferson Hotel for their Champagne Brunch, just the two of us.
She didn’t drink the champagne, but laughed when I took a sip of mine. I remember my nose crinkling as I giggled saying, “I don’t do champagne either.”
It was 21 years after my 21st birthday; we made sure to capture the memory with photos.
As you can see, she was happy. Remarried. Retired. Radiant.
Her life had come full circle.
It was birthday joy in every way.
Three years later she was gone.
I credit my mom for instilling my love of reading. I was blessed to grow up in a home with endless access to books even though the public library and shopping mall were more than a half hour drive away. In fact, I think she was more excited by the Scholastic Book Order forms that arrived in my weekly school folder than I was, meticulously circling the books SHE liked then persuading me to read them, too.
One of our favorite stores was B. Dalton Bookstores, then Barnes & Noble, where brightly-colored book covers lined shelves from wall-to-wall, the library-themed ambiance quiet, subdued, respectful. I have been known to get “lost” in a bookstore a time or two; it’s my happy place filled with words and wonders that allow me to escape.
Bookstores remind me of my mom.
As my birthday approached, I was wondering if I would see some “sign”, some God-wink, some hidden message revealed to remind me that my mom is with me on my special day even though no longer here in sight.
I meandered through the aisles of Barnes & Noble, glancing at book titles, flipping through pages of books that caught my eye, feeling the alluring pull of solidarity that only an avid reader understands. That’s when a side display caught my eye:
It was a God-wink from my mom.
If you knew my mom, then you knew she was passionate about many things: Boston Red Sox baseball, New England Patriots football and collecting frogs. (No, not real ones, they are way too jumpy!)
Every single birthday I made a point to give her something frog-related, whether it was a birthday card with a frog image or a quirky frog collectible she would proudly display in her home. Frogs were her “thing” and she made no secret of the delight she experienced when she received something, anything, with a frog on it.
This display made my heart so happy as I know it was a God-wink just for me. So many birthday bags lined up in a row, of all the birthdays I’ve had and those yet to come with one, lone, frog-themed bag on top, representing the one person who made all those birthdays possible.
Thanks for the birthday wishes, Mama. You made me smile.
Today I am 45 years old.
I am halfway to 90.
I am now the matriarch of my little family unit, making my own children’s birthday memories shine like the candle on my cake.
I am motherless, but my mother lives on through me.