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Remembering

This year Mother’s Day falls on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day. For one motherless daughter, the coincidence brings up comparisons she can’t ignore.

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A Jerusalem ceremony to mark Yom Hazikaron, April, 2010. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

This Sunday, mothers across America will be waking up to inexpert breakfasts in bed and bouquets of flowers, gifts cards, and boxes of chocolates. My own mother died two and a half years ago. That first spring after her death, as Mother’s Day advertisements began to appear after Valentine’s Day, I felt like I was drowning.

My life, after my mother died, was one long chain of doubts. Every day I thought of more things I should have done or said to her to demonstrate my love. It’s not as if I didn’t have the opportunity. Her death came almost exactly a year after her breast-cancer diagnosis, and I spent her last six months caring for her. I brought the garbage can when she was throwing up, helped her bathe and use the toilet. I told her I loved her a lot. I held her hand when she died, and I spoke at her funeral. Still, it’s impossible to look back and not have regrets. I think of the times I became irritated after a long day of doctor’s appointments; I wonder if I should have lobbied for hospice care earlier, to save her from having to endure more painful treatments, or if I should have pushed her doctors harder to try different drugs or protocols to buy us more time. And there is no end to the number of times I have wanted to reach back in time and slap my smug 16-year-old self for the hundreds of ways, great and small, that I was cruel and ungrateful. I was a teenager and it was expected, but still—it’s horrifying to look back on.

So, on Mother’s Day I’m filled with regret, but I’m also inevitably filled with rage. I know they’re straw men, but I can’t help feeling angry at the marketers and advertisers who assume we all have lively, lovely mothers who like flowers and French toast. Some of us never knew our mothers, or had mothers who walked out on us, or disowned us, or abused drugs, or abused us. Mother’s Day seems like a thumb in the eye of everyone whose mother is not typical or not alive.

This year, Mother’s Day happens to fall on the same day as the eve of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when the nation pauses to mark the loss of Israel’s soldiers and victims of terror. With the time difference, it means that as mothers in New York are sitting down to pancakes and receiving tulips, families in Israel will be lighting yahrzeit candles. On Yom Hazikaron radio stations play songs about losing comrades in battle and friends in explosions, and TV programs eulogize the dead. In the evening and again in the morning, a siren wails for a full minute across the country. Cars stop on the streets and highways, and their drivers get out. Conversations halt. People stand at attention silently; some weeping.

By the time most Israelis are teenagers, they are already experienced in dealing with trauma and loss. The mandatory draft means that nearly everyone has a friend or relative in the armed forces at any given time. The intensity and elegance with which Israel performs grief still moves me.

Mother’s Day couldn’t seem farther from Yom Hazikaron, but it turns out that it didn’t start that way. The 19th-century poet and feminist Julia Ward Howe, best known for penning the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” began crusading for a Mother’s Day for Peace in the wake of the horrific devastation of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars. Around the same time, Anna Reeves Jarvis was advocating for a Mother’s Work Day with a similar purpose. When Jarvis died, her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, took up the mantle. But the second Jarvis was more concerned with honoring mothers and less concerned with promoting peace. (There’s a rumor that Anna was motivated in part by guilt; she and her mother apparently had an epic fight and didn’t have the chance to reconcile before the elder Jarvis died.) She successfully lobbied Congress for her cause (no one wants to be on the record against mothers), and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed a joint resolution that made the second Sunday in May officially a day to recognize mothers. Anna Jarvis soon became disillusioned with the commercialization of the holiday she had helped create, noting that “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.”

How strange to think that Mother’s Day, this day of greeting cards, wanted to be the thing that help end wars and the need for Memorial Days.

It’s a cruel coincidence that Mother’s Day and Yom Hazikaron overlap this year. They are very different holidays, of course, but I am struck by how sharp the contrast is as they both grapple with our desire to show love. In Israel, Yom Hazikaron functions as a placeholder for a country that lives constantly with grief. It’s a day when a parent whose child was on the wrong bus 10 years ago can shed tears over the loss in public, unconcerned that someone will tell her to move on or get over it. In America our love for our mothers is primarily demonstrated with gifts that acknowledge that our mothers are in dire need for pampering (massages, perfume, flowers, and the like). Mother’s Day tends to be about stuff; Yom Hazikaron is about recognizing pain.

Slate recently ran a survey on loss and noted in the summary of results that “one of the hardest aspects of mourning is feeling that one’s own grief is somehow not valid, not ‘normal,’ or has gone unrecognized.” On Mother’s Day, when the entire country seems to be reveling in maternal joy, it can feel like those of us with dead mothers are simply invisible. Yom Hazikaron wouldn’t be a holiday for me even if I did live in Israel—my mother wasn’t a soldier, or a terror victim—but it’s comforting all the same to know that Israel has a national way to recognize grief, to validate the pain of an entire country.

Mother’s Day assumes the best, even when so many of us have experienced the worst. Yom Hazikaron assumes the best, too, but acknowledges the exquisite ache of grief, the endless waves with which it hits you.

This year on Mother’s Day I’m leaving town. I won’t be at a restaurant watching other families have brunch, but I won’t be at a ceremony to mark Yom Hazikaron either. I’m heading to the forest, to hike and sit and hope I hear something like a siren.

Tamar Fox is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com.

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This will be the first mother’s day without my mom. Drowning, scared, angry, envious, sad…

Leslie says:

Tamar- as a mother of four who was diagnosed with breast cancer 8 years ago my fear (just one of many) is that if i die my children will feel as you do now and that is the last thing I want. I want them to be left with cherished moments- whether they were fighting (two daughter-15 and 17) or hugging and laughing. My children are amazing and give me great joy (I probably should tell them that more) either way as I am sure you did for your mother. If I am gone on mother’s day I hope they don’t resent the day but learn to celebrate it in a different way. Just because the marketers have taken over most holidays does not mean we have to lose our sense of what they mean to us whether thru celebrating or commemorating (Yom HaZikaron). When my children are mothers or fathers I want them to be able to celebrate with their families whether I am there or not. I hope with time your pain eases and thank you for reminding us listen for a “siren” of our own this Mother’s day.

Daniel Winter says:

Hiking and sitting in the forest is ideal. You will, of course, hear something like a siren. The more gently, peacefully, quietly you tread on ha’aretz, the more likely you are to hear the birds calling to one another “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…” and various other siren songs.

Gail says:

Thanks for this exploration of what it feels like to deal with Mother’s Day when your own mother is dead. My husband and children always try to make Mother’s Day loving and fun for me, but even several years after my mother’s death, it is a struggle to feel happy on Mother’s Day. However, I don’t feel that I am motherless – I had and will always have a mother – her love and influence will always be with me, empowering me, encouraging me in whatever I do. She is still here in the way I mother my own children, and in the ways they reflect her values and care about the things she cared about. Still, it’s especially hard in the days leading up to Mother’s Day to see the cards I won’t be able to buy for my mom and to hear all the ads for Mother’s Day gifts. This year, without either child home, it will be harder to deal with Mother’s Day, but maybe it will make me more sensitive to those who have lost children or desperately want to be mothers on this day.

Tamar, I hope you find some peace in the forest, your mother would want you to.

Julie Blum says:

Thank you for sharing Tamar.

It is funny. The year your mother died, I turned 50. I had been kind of planning to make a big deal out of that milestone, but I lost the desire to celebrate my own life when she (and all of you, and all of us) lost hers. It was only when I reminded myself of some vague and distant Jewish teaching about the wedding taking precedence over the funeral that I realized that perhaps it is important not to let our pain and grief stop our celebrating.

Among other thoughts in my head this Mother’s Day will be thoughts of you and your sisters, and just how much your mom cherished each of you, and just how much she loved being a mother herself. She taught me a lot about what it is to be a good mother and I will be thinking this Sunday about how grateful I am to have had her in my life.

Love,

Julie

Rae says:

This is a really moving piece about Mother’s Day and it’s origins but I think it’s odd that there isn’t much mention of Palestinian mothers, thousands of whom, I imagine, are mourning the deaths of their children and loved ones, or the wrongful imprisonment of their young teenagers, or the inability to provide their children with a bright future because of checkpoints, the Wall, the siege of Gaza, the lack of a right to education…
I hope this mothers day we can honor all mothers, not just the ones that might “occupy” our frames of reference or hearts.

Catherine says:

I too am a breast cancer survivor with two children. Try not to regret your 16-year old “cruelty and ingratitude”. I would want my children to know that they were loved and that every moment (including the difficult ones) was treasured. My most sincere hope was that my children would by okay, find happiness and meaning. Thank you for your article.

Sarah Routman says:

Tamar,
What an impactful reminder to all of us how important it is to cherish all life because it is for all of us, a fleeting thing. This Mother’s Day, I, too, will be thinking of your mother, of her three girls. I will also be thinking of my three girls and how much I miss the youngest of them. It is a different pain and a different grief, but I cannot celebrate Mother’s Day without feeling that tremendous loss. I would not want that any other way. Perhaps in marking one day as Mother’s Day, your article reminds us to think beyond the cards and chocolate, the smiling faces eagerly awaiting the first tasted bit of a surprise child-made breakfast, and think of all aspects of motherhood: the mothers who are so poor that they cannot adequately provide for their children, the mothers whose sons and daughters are at war, those whose children were snatched from them at birth. Those who have not been able to be mothers. And those who in some way have failed their children. The list is endless and what you have done is given each of us the opportunity to pause this Mother’s Day and reflect on the many different meanings this holiday has. Each person will have his or her own experience on Sunday. I hope that your time in the forest will give you what you are seeking. I hope most of all, that each of us pauses during the day to recognize that we each celebrate blessings, regardless of our circumstance, and yet, there are always holes in the blessings that wrench our hearts, whether they are our own loss or the loss of others. May this Mother’s Day be filled with rich meaning for all of us in whatever way we mark the day.

To Julie – the funeral takes precedence.

Tamar, I am sorry for your loss at way too young an age. I am sure, however, that your mother only recognized your devotion to her, which I think for a teenager was a remarkable thing – many others would not have been able to do all that you did.

We made aliyah several months ago, and although we have, Thank G-d been spared from having lost anyone personally, I think that we have to find meaning in the day as well; it is only because of those who have given their lives that we are able to live here today.

marilyn schneider says:

In Israel we have FAMILY DAY. We do not have mothers day or fathers Day
because the child that does not have a mother or father feels very sad.

When we made Aliyah, I cried for leaving my mother. I was ,later on, at her side when she died in New York. We must bless what we have, not mourn what we do not have.

To my fellow Israelis HAPPY FAMILY DAY
marilyn

kag1989 says:

This year marks 30 years since my mother passed. She died in May, and every four years or so, her yartzeit is the same day as Mother’s Day — making that day especially bittersweet.

I am blessed with a loving husband and an amazing son. I try to spend part of every Mother’s Day remembering my mom and sharing stories about her with my son so he’ll know a little bit about the grandmother he never had a chance to meet.

Even after 30 years, having lost my mom when I was 15, it’s still surprising to me that I’ll feel such a stab of pain at a memory; or want to talk to her about something that happened to me during the week.

Cherish your mom, remember her with love. Please don’t let her death leave you unable to feel joy and to face the future with an expectation of happiness. She wouldn’t want you to dwell in sorrow for years. You will always carry her memory with you. Share stories of her with your family, and take with you all the lessons she taught you, not just about how to die with dignity and bravery — but how to live life fully with happiness and how to leave the world a better place.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend Mother’s Day than in the woods, enjoying nature.

B’shalom

you have got a fantastic weblog here! would you like to make some invite posts on my weblog?

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Remembering

This year Mother’s Day falls on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day. For one motherless daughter, the coincidence brings up comparisons she can’t ignore.

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