"What would you like to do for Mother's Day?" I asked my mom, Jan, then 67, in 1997. The sky was the limit.
She had just successfully completed breast cancer treatment, and I offered to pay her way for a trip anywhere she chose, within reason. Bali wasn't in my budget. But I was better off financially than I’d been for earlier Mother's Day celebrations and definitely past childhood construction paper cards enhanced with elbow macaroni.
“I want to go to opening night of Barry Manilow at Radio City Music Hall,” she said.
I wanted to shoot myself. How did she discover this? She lived in Virginia. The concert was in New York, and she didn’t even read The New York Times. (“Too liberal,” she always says.)
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Was there some subversive “fan-ilow” targeted advertising plan to reach his most rabid followers? I wanted to honor mom on her big day, but this? Barry and his mournful Muzak weren’t my musical speed.
And yet, I was a man of my word and secured tickets. The show was unforgettable for many reasons, including his “shout out to moms everywhere” and my mom bonding with other “fan-ilows” in the adjoining seats, like instant BFFs at camp. My mother figured if they liked Mandy and Daybreak, then they must be good folks.
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The next day, we ate al fresco at Isabella's, an Italian restaurant near where I lived on the Upper West Side. Dark-haired maître d' Tony remembered her from our Mother’s Day visits the two years prior. Sitting outside in the urban glow of table candles and city lights on a cool spring May evening quickly became a new tradition.
Splurging and Spoiling Mom
When I think of celebrating Mother's Day as an adult, I think of the fun splurges: How mom loved seeing Mamma Mia and Les Miserables, discovering new restaurants and revisiting favorite spots like the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg, Va.
In the picture above, we’re on The Kennedy Center terrace in Washington, D.C. for Mother’s Day in 1993, about to attend Phantom of the Opera. Again.
We’d seen it for Mother’s Day 1988, the year after I moved to New York. Now she was determined to watch the chandelier drop and hear the organ swell once more as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masked anti-hero whisked poor Christine away to his underground lair.
I’ve spent almost all Mother’s Days with mine. On the rare occasions I’ve missed being with her in person, I sent flowers and two cards, a tradition Mom started when my three siblings and I were kids. For birthdays, we’d each get a sentimental note, quickly followed by a funny one to circumvent the sap and make us laugh. We’ve carried the tradition forward.
When Aging Changes Traditions
Many who spend the second Sunday of every May honoring motherhood know the holiday can trigger anxiety. Sometimes I feel a bit like Anna Jarvis, the woman credited with creating Mother’s Day in 1908; it became an official U.S. holiday six years later. Jarvis had been intent on trumpeting the sacrifices moms made for their kids after her own mother died. But even she ended up denouncing the holiday’s commercialization and spent considerable effort in her later years trying to remove it from our national calendar.
Mother’s Day planning has always caused some level of concern, requiring a certain attention to detail, such as buying theater tickets or double-checking reservations at packed restaurants.
But in the last few years, I’ve had more than typical trouble deciding how to celebrate. Mom doesn’t enjoy big groups or exploring new places like she once did. Do we still try to go out? Will I rope in my siblings for a party or shall we divide and conquer, with separate mini-fêtes?
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On days like today, when I am planning how to celebrate Mother’s Day, I think of well-intentioned Jarvis’s cautionary tale of succumbing to marketing excess. I see the flood of cards and advertisements for exciting places to go and expensive ways to celebrate all things maternal.
Should I push the envelope and try to make it what I’d call an exciting experience? Or is my debate similar to what parents of a toddler go through, throwing an elaborate First birthday party when the wee one couldn’t care less about hubbub and is annoyed by the forced fanciness? At this point, you ask yourself: For whom exactly are you making this effort?
A Celebration of Memories
“I miss Isabella’s,” Mom said to me a few years ago when we spent Mother’s Day at her home, in between bites of the sweet and sour pork we’d picked up at the Peking Chinese food restaurant. She was worried about traveling, given her husband’s heart condition and felt more comfortable staying put.
“Wasn’t that just the best place?” she asked with her Virginia accent, specific to her Richmond hometown, a softer and more lilting version than what you might hear further south. “What did I used to have?”
“You liked the linguine with shrimp and tomatoes and the Caesar salad with dressing on the side,” I said. “And, of course, the Pinot Grigio.”
She laughed. My auburn-haired, hazel-eyed mom has a hearty, infectious spark of a laugh. Her face lights up, she tosses her head back, and her smile is broad. For a church-going, staunch Republican who can be serious as a stroke when discussing politics, her austerity goes out the window when she laughs, replaced by a magnetic, generous irreverence.
“Isabella’s,” she said definitively, as if to make clear we’d always have that, and her voice trailed off. “We’ll go back there.”
“Of course, we will,” I said. “Anytime you want.”
I wondered if she really missed our excursions, or if, regardless of her husband’s health, traveling has become too daunting.
I can’t pinpoint when this changed. It seems like one day she was up for adventure. Then suddenly, in her early 80s, she wasn’t. It’s taken me a few years to understand how an older person must feel about maneuvering the fast-paced world of highways, cities, theaters, parking and new faces.
Appreciating Time Together
Right now, she is home recovering from a second bout of breast cancer, 17 years after the first. She’s a fighter and a trouper, with a Katharine Hepburn “no whining, just get on with it” attitude about the Big C.
To celebrate this year, maybe I’ll bring in Chinese food, set out the good China and sit in the formal dining room to give the day a sense of occasion. Or, maybe we’ll repeat what we did last year, a month before her 85th birthday. We went to King's BBQ, a 50s-style diner with no-frills service close to her house: convenient and, more importantly, a known quantity.
It wasn't as exciting as our New York City whirlwind visits or trips to countryside inns. But eating nearby and then hanging out in her den is a new Mother's Day tradition, one that works for where she is in life now, when traveling isn't as easy and late nights out are capped at 8 p.m.
But the times we share are no less rich.
Last year, I pulled out my smartphone, tapped the video recorder and asked Mom questions about her childhood. I cajoled her into remembering and tried not to interrupt.
How did she and her sisters celebrate Mother’s Day for their mom? Could she recall when her kids were little and made a big fuss over breakfast in bed? At first, she had a wary look in her eyes, unsure about getting the third degree and this filming business. But within a few minutes, she relaxed and the conversation flowed. Remembering those breakfasts and hand-made cards made her smile.
As I listened, I wondered how many more Mother’s Days we’ll have together. It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality. How many will we enjoy? How many will there be when Mom still recalls the ones that came before, all those memories we made?
I know the clock is ticking. But I quickly put that thought out of my head and get back into the present, asking her questions about the past instead of pondering the future.
Our Mother's Day traditions now are less about the externals — fancy dinners, shows, trips — and more about the internals — comfort, connection and repetition. She may not be standing and swaying as her beloved Barry sings his melodramatic heart out, but his music is playing in the background as we make the most of Mother's Day today.
We're here. We have five decades of memories as mother and son. We may grow older, but Mother's Day doesn't get old.
“Do you want to move from coffee to a glass of Pinot Grigio?” I asked.
It was 7:30 p.m. We were winding down. Twenty years ago, the evening would have been just starting.
“Yes, let’s go wild,” she said as she tossed her head back and laughed.
I could still hear her laughing down the hall as I uncorked the bottle and filled our glasses.