Last year, I sent my mom some fruit on a stick for Mother’s Day.
“I don’t like getting flowers,” she used to say. “They just die.” So I sent her a bouquet of cantaloupe and pineapple and strawberries dipped in chocolate and she seemed happy enough. I didn’t know it that day, but she wouldn’t live past May.
This year, for Mother’s Day, she’ll be in a box from the Neptune Society on a shelf in my closet, next to a vintage Gucci address book she bought at a garage sale in 1987.
It will be my first Mother’s Day since she died, felled fast by one of those deadly antibiotic-resistant infections.
She had all my phone numbers, from NYC to SF
That faded brown canvas and leather address book is still filled with my mom’s Post-It notes about appointments, insurance codes and random bank routing numbers, things that will never matter to anybody ever again.
Across an entire page, in red ballpoint pen and blue ink and faded pencil and felt tip, is every phone number I’ve ever had, dozens of them. For my dorm room in New York City; my first apartment on Avenue A; the place I rented a room in a big, messy flat in San Francisco; my first cellphone; my Hollywood apartment, where I lived next door to a transsexual prostitute.
There is the address for the first house I bought, a 1914 Craftsman in the Koreatown district of East Los Angeles. That’s the house where my husband and I brought home our first baby, a boy named Nathaniel, who is now 7.
We often went months without speaking
At 8 days old, he was circumcised in the sunny makeshift office of that house. The rabbi deemed it the best-lit room, ideal for his delicate work. There was no giant party or elaborate ceremony; it was just my husband and I, baby Nate, his soon-to-be-removed foreskin, the rabbi and my mother, with whom I hadn’t spoken the entire time I was pregnant. I can’t even remember why now.
Like many mother-daughter relationships, ours was complicated.
My husband had invited her to come, determined to end our feud. She accepted immediately, showing up the next day, half an hour early.
When I answered the door, she handed me a giant, lavish platter of bagels and lox, enough for two dozen people. Later, she sat on the couch and held her first grandchild. Her face showed no signs of emotion and she said nothing, but I still remember noticing that a tear had fallen on her lime green linen shirt, and another on my son’s fuzzy newborn head.
‘I’ll come back when I’m invited’
That’s an image of her that flashes through my mind when I flip to my page in her book, hold the worn canvas cover in my hand. At the bottom of the page, squeezed into the corner, is my current address in Phoenix, where she came out to visit Nate and his little brother, Andrew, a couple of years back.
“You’re welcome any time, mom,” I told her, as my husband loaded up her trunk and handed her a bottle of water for the road.
“I’ll come back when I’m invited,” she said breezily. And it wasn’t long after she peeled away that I rolled my eyes and asked my husband to translate, something he’d been doing for years. He spoke Tammy.
“What she means is that she wants to come back, but you have to give her exact dates or she won’t feel welcome. You can’t just blanket invitation her. That’s not how Tammy operates.”
I wish I had let go of hurt feelings
Well, she’s back now.
We’re together again, like when it was just the two of us: A single mom struggling with the demands of parenthood and a daughter, desperate to please her.
I would give anything to have invited my mom back on her terms, letting go of all the ways she had disappointed or frustrated me. But I can no sooner do that than I can reanimate those ashes and serve her a chocolate-covered strawberry on a stick.
I don’t know what it’s like to lose a mom with whom you had a perfect relationship. The kind of relationship in which you bore no resentments for absentee parenting or benign neglect. The kind of relationship in which you received boundless, wild, enormous, love and safety.
Still, Mom always knew how to find me
I only know that I can’t toss that address book, that list in my own mother’s hand of all the places she tracked me as I chased dreams and sometimes caught them, and other times lost them down a dark alley. My mother was the one person who always knew how to find me, even if she didn’t always know how to reach me. And that’s something.
This year, I join masses of motherless daughters, whether we lost our moms to abandonment, illness or death.
As for me, I plan to let my kids be nice to me. I plan to cry over their homemade cards. And I also plan to reach out to other motherless daughters, if nothing else, to remind them someone knows the shape and size of the deep void a mom leaves.
I won’t send fruit and I won’t send flowers. They just die. But I will remind my motherless sisters that someone still knows your number.
Teresa Strasser is an Emmy-winning writer (Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money), and Emmy-nominated television host (TLC’s While You Were Out). Radio and podcast audiences know her as the co-host of The Adam Carolla Show.