May 7 is my mother’s birthday, a milestone birthday, and the other day, while we were sitting outside Baskin-Robbins eating ice-cream cones, she said to me, “What have I been doing all these years?”
Now that’s a question.
She was leaning back in the chair, kicking her crossed leg, letting the sun warm her face, and she was twirling that ice-cream cone like mad in her hand, like she was winding a watch.
I could see that she was happy. Content. But her question hung in the air.
“What have I been doing all these years?”
Like she’d wasted them. Or misused them. Or wished she’d done something differently.
If you don’t mind, may I remind you? You went from being a little girl who I never knew, who got so excited over her first — and only — birthday cake that your own mother ordered with a doll in the middle, the doll’s dress fanning out in thick frosting, to a high school senior with a teased beehive and a blue satin prom gown. You kept your mouth closed when you smiled, and I know it’s because you thought your teeth weren’t nice enough, but then one day you realized that goodness, that kindness, have nothing to do with teeth. You got a beautician’s license to do hair, but then you met my dad, so handsome and hearty, and you got married instead. And then you had me. And I hope you see how I look at you and wonder how I will ever endure this earth without you, although I recognize that one day I will have to, and I don’t like thinking about that at all, but we’re being honest here, and so there it is.
If you don’t mind, may I remind you that you started a thriving small business when you were only 22 years old, and even now I get calls from so many people, readers of this magazine who remember your craft store in Asheboro with such fondness. They remember how well you treated them when they brought in their cross-stitched samplers and crocheted sweaters and tole-painted footstools for you to admire, and they tell me about your genuine laugh and your infectious enthusiasm — and I see it, every day, not only in you, but, somehow, now it’s jumped to me, too, because, oh, Mama, this is what you’ve been doing all these years: saturating the spirit of everyone around you with joy.
If you don’t mind, may I remind you that when you closed your store after a long, 20-year run, you got your first job, selling furniture, and you were so good at it, the way you are so good at everything you do. At making silky meringue for the tops of your lemon and chocolate pies; at turning down a bed and smoothing the sheets so they seem cool when someone has a temperature; at lining a front walkway with marigolds, so sunny and cheerful; at stopping in to see a friend who’s having a hard time; at the way you push a broom across a floor to make everything so clean and fresh.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, says the writer Annie Dillard, and isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that just exactly right?
What have you been doing all these years? You’ve been making every day better for the people who love you, just by being alive in this world.
Happy birthday, Mama. And Mother’s Day, too.
What a gift.