Mother’s Day is still a few days away, but there are buds on the antique rambling rose that my mother rooted for me from her grandmother’s rose, and it will be in full bloom by Sunday, as it always is on Mother’s Day. My husband will make brunch. Our adult children will come over, and we’ll bring my husband’s 92-year-old father over, too, because he lives for family gatherings and has felt the loss of them more acutely than any of us. We’re all vaccinated now, but we won’t soon forget how it feels to be kept apart.
Mother’s Day has always cast a shadow of sadness for me, even before the pandemic turned every day into a memento mori. My paternal grandmother died before I was born, when Dad was only 24. He always threw himself into making Mother’s Day brunch a special event for Mom — and for her mother and grandmother — but he never stopped mourning his own mother, the one for whom I am named.
So I learned early on what a loaded holiday this can be. It’s terrible for those who mourn a mother now gone, and also for those whose mothers were just not equipped to nurture a child. It’s terrible for women who desperately wanted to be mothers but couldn’t be, and also for women who didn’t want to be mothers but are too often vilified for that perfectly reasonable choice. It’s beyond terrible for women who have lost a child.
I have family and friends who struggle on Mother’s Day for all these reasons. I think of them when I think, as I inevitably do on this day in May, of how much I miss my mother. The world has enough suffering in it without inventing a holiday that causes so much pain, and I would gladly eradicate it from the calendar if I could.
But painful as it can be, Mother’s Day also reminds me of how wondrously motherhood unites me with so much of the animal kingdom. My youngest child outgrew being a hip baby 20 years ago, but I have to stop myself from reaching out for a crying infant in the checkout line, and I swear I feel the urge to protect the hatchlings in my nest box as deeply as their mother does. We are partners in this enterprise of bringing baby bluebirds into the world, she and I, no matter that she doesn’t know it.
The need to protect and nurture young is a biological imperative shared by a surprising array of creatures. Ambivalence about the holiday notwithstanding, I will gladly play every cute-animal video and click through every cute-animal slide show that crops up on the internet at this time of year. Who could resist the lioness purring as she licks her cub’s belly, or a fox carrying her kit to safety by the scruff of its neck, or a giant-taloned hawk carefully nudging her curious eyas back beneath the safety of her breast?
I’m especially fond of the nurturing animals that we don’t associate with nurturing at all: the wolf spider carrying her tiny spiderlings on her back, the alligator tenderly carrying her baby in her mouth, the timber rattlesnake protectively encircling her hatchlings, the broad-headed skink silently guarding her eggs in the dark.
And as difficult as it is to stand witness to another’s grieving, it comforts me to be reminded of the universality of grief, to remember that we are not alone in our suffering, or in where we look for solace. I think of Rosamund Young’s delightful memoir, “The Secret Life of Cows,” and her story of the grieving young mother who sought her own mother for comfort, from three fields away, after the stillbirth of her calf. I think of the orca carrying her dead calf for 17 days, across a thousand miles of ocean, because she could not bear to let the baby go. (Last fall she gave birth again, this time to an apparently healthy calf.)
This week I will write notes to a friend who lost her only child to the pandemic, and to two others who lost their mothers. This holiday will be terrible for them all, and I suffer no illusion that my notes will bring them even the meagerest comfort. My only hope is to remind them that I am holding them close across the miles.
Mother’s Day is a saccharine invention, a national fairy tale in a nation that does almost nothing to support mothers. But it is also a day for contemplating the ways in which we’re connected to one another, through times of joy and times of sorrow, across time and across species. So my children will come over for brunch, and I will set out mealworms for the bluebirds to feed their babies.
I will cut a bouquet of antique roses and think of my mother and my grandmothers, the one I knew deep into my 40s and the one I never met. I will think of my great-grandmother, the steadfast center of my childhood, and of the mother and grandmothers who formed her sweet spirit, and of the mothers and grandmothers who formed them, too, going back longer than I will ever know.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”