Not long after my wife died in 2004 at age 52, a friend walked into my bookstore, and we struck up a conversation. Nearby, my 9-year-old boy, our youngest of four children, sat reading a book. My friend and I spoke for several minutes, and then she gestured to my son.
“I guess you’ll have to be Mom and Dad to him now,” she said.
When we were driving home that evening, I asked my son if he’d overheard my friend’s comment. He nodded.
“I want you to understand something,” I said. “I can never be Mom and Dad to you. I promise you I’ll be as good a dad as I can be, but I can’t take the place of your mother. Her love for you was different than mine. Hers was a mother’s love for you. I’ll love you just the way I always have, and I’ll take care of you, but I’m your dad and I can’t replace your mom. I want you always to remember all the ways she loved you.”
Harsh? Perhaps. But I wanted the kid to know his mom was special.
A Little Background
My wife had her flaws, many of which my children and I still laugh about today. She disliked housekeeping, and cooking up a box of mac-and-cheese was for her the height of culinary arts, which meant that for the 20 years we operated our bed-and-breakfast I was chief cook and bottle-washer, and often maid and laundress.
She was terrible at managing our accounts, and though I would have been worse at that task, even I could see that on the financial front we were fighting a lost battle.
Once, when the house was in great shape and business was reasonably good, I convinced her we should sell the bed-and-breakfast, which also served as our home. The realtor was sitting with us in the kitchen, going over plans to show the house, when I realized Kris had vanished. I excused myself, wandered down the hallway, and found her weeping in the living room.
Without a word passing between us, I returned to the kitchen and said to the realtor, “I’m afraid the house is no longer for sale.” He departed, disappointed and confused, and that concluded our opportunity to escape our war with the bank. (I am always a sucker for a woman’s tears.)
A Mother’s Love
I loved my wife and can’t speak highly enough of her as a mother. For that matter, neither can her children. She could be strict—she investigated the movies they wanted to watch, asked many questions about their friends and where they were going, and despised deception—but she was always in their corner, and they knew it. She pushed them to do well in school, went to their dance recitals and soccer games, loved taking them on vacations or on visits to their grandparents’ house in Milwaukee, listened to them when they had problems with friends, encouraged them in their religious faith, and worried over them when they were ill.
Now, let’s journey back in time to 1968 and another mom.
Mom Becomes Real
I was a junior in high school, a guy with big plans, and was talking to my mom in our kitchen when I cracked a joke I’ve since forgotten. My mother thought it was hysterical, laughed long and hard, and turned into a human being right before my eyes. Until that moment, she was a part of the background, someone always in my life but invisible in a way, hidden behind the title of Mother. She’d raised me, read me bedtime stories, picked me up after school activities, cared for me in sickness and in health, and I loved her, but I had never really looked at her as a real person, only as my mom.
And yes, I’m ashamed to write those words.
But her whoop of laughter opened my eyes, and magically, she became real.
Mother and Best Friend
From that point on, my mother became my friend—eventually, one of my best friends. Even after my father left us and divorced her, a circumstance forcing her to find a job while raising my younger siblings, Mom was always there when I needed her. After I married until her death in 1992, we talked weekly by phone, she came often to stay with my family, and we discussed everything under the sun: politics, religion, education, the lives of my siblings and their spouses. In the eyes of all her children, Mom took on the status of matriarch, the beloved heart of our clan.
So attached was I to her that for months after her death, when her grandchildren would do something funny, or when I really needed someone to listen to me or advise me about a problem, I would think, “I should call Mom.”
But there was no phone service to the land where she had gone.
This Mother’s Day
All of you reading this column have a unique relationship with your mothers. Some of you may identify with my fond memories of the two mothers I knew best in my life. Others of you may find your relationship with your mothers insufferable, fraught with arguments, or blighted by bad or even horrific memories of a broken childhood. A few of you may not have spoken to their mothers in years, divided by a mountain of anger and misunderstanding.
Still, Mother’s Day is that Sunday when we honor the women who conceived us and brought us into this world. If there are wounds, this day, in particular, provides as good an opportunity as any to bind up those injuries and let the healing begin. If instead of wounds, there is intimacy and affection, this day is a great occasion for telling Mom how much you love her. Buy her a gift, present her with flowers, treat her to a meal, but best of all, tell her how much she has meant in your life.
Better Make That Call While You Can
In a vintage Bear Bryant commercial for a telephone company, the famed Alabama football coach tells viewers he strongly encourages his players to stay in touch with their families, having them write letters and postcards, and making phone calls. At the end of this short advertisement, Coach Bryant looks into the camera and says, “Have you called your mama today?” He pauses, and then says, “I sure wish I could call mine.”
I sure wish I could call mine, too, Coach.
And I know my children wish they could do the same.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.