On my way home from my father’s funeral so many years ago, I was stuck at Chicago Airport for what felt like an eternity. For hours I kept walking and walking in circles, outside for a cigarette, back inside, around the counters, back outside, through security again, then back out … As I walked, I kept finding coins on the floor, and finally I realized that it was because I was only looking at the floor. Every time I raised my eyes, it seemed that some poster, sign, banner leaped out at me, shouting, “Remember Dad!”, “Are you thinking about your father?”, “Don’t forget Dad!” And the tears started flowing again. Although it was only May, ads were already up everywhere urging people to BUY MORE STUFF for Father’s Day. My father had just died, I was trying to get home after his funeral, and the ubiquitous, insistent ads just felt cruel and unnecessary.
That memory came back to me most vividly a few days ago, overlapping now with a new grief: slowly waking up, drinking coffee and browsing through the newspaper, I was caught off-guard by a shiny magazine supplement in the paper, which had a few trivial, meaningless little articles about Mother’s Day customs squeezed in between endless ads for jewelry, chocolate, holiday cruise packages, expensive restaurants … Mother’s Day. And the tears started flowing again.
For myself, I have always rejected Mother’s Day. As an old feminist I refused to celebrate a commercial holiday that only reinforces old stereotypes of mothers sacrificing themselves for their families every day, except for that one day a year. It left my children in a somewhat awkward position in kindergarten and primary school, when they were faced with preparing crafts, poems, little essays for Mother’s Day, which they were afraid I wouldn’t like. One year in primary school, Christopher managed to write a very sweet little essay explaining why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in our household, because we are all supposed to share responsibility for household chores. I think his teacher was a bit startled, but I was delighted that he (at least theoretically) got the message. I was never oblivious to Mother’s Day, though, because we did celebrate it with Peter’s mother. It was her day, she enjoyed it, it mattered to her, so it mattered to all of us. A drive out to the countryside, a nice lunch with the whole family together, coffee and cake together in the garden – Mother’s Day was Oma’s day, and it was a joy to share in her pleasure in having a special day in her honor.
Now I will never celebrate Mother’s Day again.
My beloved mother-in-law died on Easter Sunday, not even three weeks have passed yet since her funeral. Our grief is still too fresh, and none of us are ready to be bombarded by commercial holiday ads urging us to BUY MORE STUFF, because Mother’s Day is coming. That just feels cruel and unnecessary.
Human beings need rituals and celebrations, I am convinced of that, and we all need to find the right celebrations and rituals that fit, that feel right. What I resent is the way this fundamental need is appropriated by commercialism solely to urge people to BUY MORE STUFF. I can imagine that the people who create these infuriating ad campaigns are aware of how they may cause pain or distress to some people for certain reasons, but I can also imagine how they calculate the number of people likely to be upset versus the number of people likely to BUY MORE STUFF, simply because we have lost a sense of how to really celebrate and compensate for that with superfluous material gifts.
As commercial holidays, “greeting card holidays”, seem to proliferate with ever new inventions of “occasions”, imposing old social roles that form a narrative of what is “normal” and invoking fundamental needs of belonging, of receiving recognition, of feeling connected to other people, as social media hysterically broadcast that it’s someone’s birthday every day, sometimes it feels as though there is little room left for developing one’s own rituals, for finding ways to celebrate that fit, that feel right.
Peter was never very good at dealing with imposed occasions, predetermined dates, although he always managed to come through at the last minute for Christmas and birthdays. As a most generous and thoughtful gift-giver, though, he preferred to choose his own reasons for giving gifts when they were least expected or most needed for whatever reason. Together we always laughed at occasions like Valentine’s Day, refusing together to give into arbitrary, meaningless pressure to acknowledge our relationship, although it is admittedly rather less amusing alone now. Following his example, I have tried to find other rituals for myself since his death. One of them is that I take a rose to him on my birthday, since he no longer brings me roses, and climb up on the little ladder at the cemetery to try to place a single rose securely in the little flower box below his niche. On his birthday then, I took a rose to his mother to thank her for being the mother of this son, who made my life so much better. This year, Peter’s birthday was on a Saturday, and since I was going to Vienna that evening to see a friend’s play and then go to Paddy’s farewell party, I was distracted and running late, and all the flower shops were closed before I could get to the hospital to visit my mother-in-law. I apologized to her for that and promised to bring the rose to her later.
I kept that promise a week later. By the time I arrived at the hospital with the rose, she had only brief moments of consciousness before drifting off to sleep again, so she didn’t really see it, but as I sat with her, holding her hand, talking quietly to her, I told her that I had brought the rose to her. I thanked her again for the son she had given birth to and raised, and I asked her to convey messages to him from me, since she would be seeing him soon. She opened her eyes a few times in between and gave me a beautiful smile. When she died the next day, so quietly, gently, peacefully, we placed the rose in her hands as we said good-bye for the last time. It seems that I brought the rose at the right time, after all.
In the years to come, we will all find our different ways of remembering Oma, develop our own personal and shared rituals of remembrance as we learn to live with missing her. They will be our own rituals, though, not imposed by arbitrary commercial seasons and “occasions”.
And no matter what kind of clever advertising campaigns callous and calculating marketers may come up with, I will never celebrate Mother’s Day again.