When I was growing up in Washington, D.C., driving or walking around the city on Mother's Day meant seeing lots of people on the street wearing flowers. Carnations, mostly, since they were inexpensive, although some who could afford roses wore those.
And when we got to church almost everyone was wearing a flower. Flowers on lapels, flowers in buttonholes, flowers pinned near the left shoulder.
If you've never heard of this Mother's Day tradition before, this is how you participate: if you are a mother, you wear a pink flower. If you are not a mother, you wear a red flower if your mother is living and a white flower if your mother is no longer living. You wear the flower all day, where ever you go in the community, and it can be a means of social interaction for people. If you see a friend you haven't seen in a while, who was wearing a red flower the last time you saw each other, but now is wearing a white one, it opens conversation and connection.
Sometimes as part of the church service, people wearing a white flower for the first time—experiencing the first Mother's Day without their mother—would be asked to stand and have their grief recognized. Following that, women who were wearing a pink flower for the first time—experiencing their first Mother's Day AS a mother—would also stand and be recognized with joyful applause. The cycle of death and life.
So I've been wearing a white flower for the last seven holidays. On Mother's Day, I wanted my grief recognized! Especially at the beginning. In the years that followed, sometimes it was a major grief trigger, other years I was able to get through the day more easily.
Yesterday at church I think I had a breakthrough.
In the beginning of the tradition, pink flowers were only given to mothers and no one else got anything. Non-mothers were left out, and it's a hard enough day for some childless women anyway without one more thing to point out their non-mother status. Over time the red/white flowers were added so everyone could participate, including women who were not mothers, and men.
So yesterday morning I was sitting near the door handing out the flowers, with a white carnation tucked behind my ear. When I saw a woman whom I knew to be a mother I would automatically hand her a pink flower. I would ask each man if his mother was living, and then give him the appropriate boutonnière. Sometimes people would ask for a particular color and I would give them whatever they asked for.
Then one lady with no children came by and asked for a red flower, even though I knew her mother had died many years before we met. Why red? I asked her. She said sweetly that she wanted to honor her mother as alive because she felt her mother lived on in her. I gave her the red carnation and she walked away with a smile.
I thought about what she said for a long time. I am always the one reassuring grieving children that their mother lives on in them: "remember—half your DNA is hers". But what did that really mean? Is it a comfort to hold onto the concept that my mother lives on in me? How would my life change if I really felt that and lived into that? Would it only make me feel worse about not having children of my own? When I die, so much will die with me.
I held on to that feeling for the whole of the church service as I thought about times I felt my mom's presence with me and within me in the last seven years since her death.
After the worship was over, I got two unexpected presents: a beautiful greeting card addressed to "our spiritual mother", and a separate fruit basket with a gift card also calling me a spiritual mother. I was very moved and almost cried at these gifts—I surprised myself by how much it meant to me. And once again I was convicted by my own past words: I am always the one telling women that if they raised anyone's children with love or have children/adults who look to them as a mother that they can then claim the title of mother (if they want it) in honor of their "mothering spirit".
So when I die my DNA and my mother's will be gone. But I will still have left something of myself behind, and something of her as well, since there are so many ways she made me who I am. I have influenced some lives for the better, people of all ages, some of whom have children of their own. Something of me will live on, especially if I become more intentional about trying to pass on whatever knowledge or wisdom I feel I have to offer. Google cache is forever--my blog posts will outlive me if nothing else!
At the end of the day my white flower fell out from behind my ear. I looked at it and thought hard about the message I was sending to myself with it. Was the symbol of the white carnation something I was using to make the day sadder than it needed to be?
Suddenly I found myself wanting to embrace the other two colors as a way of expanding my identity and my sense of self. My mother DOES live on in me. And I have been a spiritual mother to dozens if not hundreds of people. I felt a strong need to recast my approach to Mother's Day. Refusing to let the day be a grief trigger forever.
As I was walking around checking doors and getting ready to leave the empty building, I found a red carnation someone had forgotten on a folding chair. I decided it was mine. I smiled with the thought that it had gotten left behind so it would be there for me. I found a pink carnation too, on the tray where the flowers had been distributed. I stood there with all three flowers in my hand for a while.
Then I went and put them in a bud vase on my desk.
Welcome, fellow travelers on the grief journey
and a special welcome to anyone new to The Grieving Room.
We meet every Monday evening.
Whether your loss is recent, or many years ago;
whether you've lost a person, or a pet;
or even if the person you're "mourning" is still alive,
("pre-grief" can be a very lonely and confusing time),
you can come to this diary and say whatever you need to say.
We can't solve each other's problems,
but we can be a sounding board and a place of connection.
Unlike a private journal
here, you know: your words are read by people who
have been through their own hell.
There's no need to pretty it up or tone it down.
It just is.