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.