I don't want a box of chocolates for Mothers Day. I want absolution. When the kids hit their teenage years, all mothers can think about is the many ways they've probably messed them up. Too much love, too little hugging. Breast- or bottle feeding. Rotten diets. Missed the clues, didn't see it coming. Too outspoken, too reticent. Why couldn't I have been one of those moms who made the costumes for the class play?
The thing I finally realize when I'm in one of these Mommie Dearest funks is this: My kids are not messed up. They're good. They are healthy.
I'm the one with the guilt, the fear and trepidation. It's a mother's curse -- payback for the immeasurable pleasures and joys motherhood constantly surprises us with like the sight of fat, pink toes or a chocolate streaked face.
This year on Mothers Day I'm going to ask my kids to forgive me and to give me a guilt-free day. I'll turn over the vegetable bed, working manure and coffee grounds into the fallow Earth. And I'll think of the mothers I love best, the ones who've really earned their stripes.
Growing up in Kentucky, my favorite mother was Dean Peterson, a tiny woman with a raucous laugh who had two sons, Little Don and Mike, my playmates. Dean was an unusual mom because she had a real job, working in a factory manufacturing electrical parts. She had an easy way with her husband, Big Don, who seemed to be her best friend as well as her spouse. She adored our girly family with three daughters. She brushed our hair and took us shopping for dresses. She worshiped my mother's way with a needle and thread.
A snapshot: Dean and Mama sunbathing on plastic-banded lounge chairs in the back yard. They are wearing terrycloth, elasticized halter tops and pointed sunglasses. Dean's skin is deep brown, her shoulders flecked with freckles. My mother laughs with her more than with anyone.
Another snapshot: Little Don sits on top of the clothes dryer in our kitchen, his legs dangling, his feet swinging as I blow out the candles on my birthday cake. Dean and Mama hustle about the kitchen, pouring Kool-Aid and dishing out the cake.
Another: I am 10 and my family has left the street where Dean lives for another part of town. I have a recurring dream of walking down 18th Street, my old address, past the school, down Nutwood Avenue, past the CBS drugstore, all the way down the town's main drag to an unfamiliar place on the town square. I am behind a bank, lost, about to cry, wondering how I will ever find my way home when Dean appears in my dream. She drives up, her arm hanging lazily out the driver's side window. "Come on; get in," she says, and the dream is over.
Fast forward 20 years. I live in a neighboring city 60 miles up the road and have a house full of babies -- a two-year-old and twin infants, boys, plus a gorgeous 12-year-old daughter. Frequently we pack the babies up and visit Dean on 18th Street. She likes the boys and dotes on my daughter. She feeds us peanut butter and crackers, pimento cheese, Cokes and cookies. She lets us stay as long as we want. She shows us photos of her granddaughter, Mike's daughter who lives just a few blocks away, and tells us about Little Don's faraway adventures building shopping malls in distant cities in Texas and Florida.
Fast forward 10 years: We've moved to Colorado but still visit Dean when in Tennessee or Kentucky. Big Don is dead. Little Don has returned home with odd physical ailments that eventually add up to Lou Gehrig's Disease, ALS. At first we can talk; eventually I can but he cannot. His wheelchair and hospital bed are permanent furnishings in Dean's den and Little Don's old bedroom. He wants to talk about the mountains and snow in Colorado. He smiles as we remember a talent show when we were kids where he dressed as a girl. "He was the prettiest thing you ever saw," laughs Dean.
Fast forward another 10 years. My childhood best friend Lynn Fly drops me an e-mail. Little Don has died. Lynn is a nurse and says his care at Dean's hands was impeccable, surely the reason he lasted so long. He was peaceful. The Bible comforted him. He was at home until just before his death. I call Mama, who also cares for a disabled aging child, and tell her. Dean will want to talk to her.
I don't call Dean. I don't want to make her cry. I want to think of her strong and laughing. I write this for her instead. On Mothers Day, she'll be with me with every turn of the garden fork in Colorado, looking at Don's bird feeders through the sliding glass doors of her den on 18th Street back in Bowling Green. Her Mothers day won't be happy, but she'll have absolution, grace and certainty -- she was the best mother possible.