When the girls were younger and The Betty (my mother), was alive it was a given that Mother’s Day was the holiest day of the year. Nothing could replace colorful handmade cards or thoughtful school projects Hallmark could only wish to emulate.
As for The Betty, her words of encouragement around my Bohemian-style parenting were few and far between. And while sparse, those simple cards and her words were the highest form of validation I could imagine.
All that changed and handmade cards went out of fashion when the girls grew older and my parenting acumen came from adjusting to their semi-independence. Questions I had always asked like, “Did you grab your lunch, honey?” or “Hilary is picking you up after the movie, right?” were answered with rolled eyes and the obligatory, “Yes. Mom.”
Apparently, this meant I was doing things correctly. I think.
Honestly, there is no correctly. Every seasoned mother knows the journey to adulthood is more like M.C. Escher staircases and less like the yellow brick road dotted with age-appropriate milestones. Children don’t come with instruction manuals and even if they did, every model is different. It’s a tougher gig than anyone can anticipate and few will admit.
Glossing these things over in my mind, I was delighted to be in Massachusetts with my youngest, sitting outside for brunch this past Holy Day. The weather was perfect (I like to think The Betty has more say about these matters now) and my daughter had taken me to a tiny, hidden restaurant she heard about from friends.
It brought me back to a time when the two of us had a standing breakfast date every Sunday when her older sister was in Hebrew school. We went all over Portland rating restaurants, examining everything from bathroom cleanliness to menu variety. She had a small notebook with columns and made checkmarks when things were right, and a bold X when they weren’t. While bonding over dining out, the image of her 4-year-old self sitting at the bar doing utensil roll-ups flooded back to me. I had to dry my eyes and feign allergies to keep her from balking at my sentimentality.
As we debated the merits of our Bloody Marys, my attention was caught by a grouping of tables full of children, sippy cups, and urban-chic moms. We both recognized this as the restaurant’s “Romper Room,” which is a strategy to seat families with small children near each other to ensure simpatico reactions in case someone melts down. (Typically, it’s a young child whose patience is pushed to the limit, but I’ve seen a parent or two blow up in frustration from the drop-the-fork-on-the-floor game children love to play over and over.)
Seated closest to us was a four-top with a high chair. It appeared to be parents, grandparents, and a little bundle of joy. The mother and baby were dressed alike in yellow dresses, and the beautiful scene resembled the front of one of those Hallmark cards I never bought. This is not to say it wasn’t lovely and real, it just somehow didn’t look or feel like my own life.
Soon after they were seated, I ran into the mother and grandmother waiting for the restroom, having left the baby with the men.
The young mother was sobbing softly, embarrassed to be seen by me. As she turned away I could hear her say, “I’m so tired and I just don’t think I can do this. She cries all the time.”
Replying at first in Spanish and then English, the grandmother said, “Mira a Dios. Look to God. You and your brother cried all the time.” Then, straightening up and sounding a bit like The Betty: “You have to be strong and be an example for your daughter. No one said it was easy, even if it looks like it.”
The grandmother left her sniffling daughter and went into the restroom, and I so wanted to tell this young mother everything would be alright. Instead, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and turned around.
“I see you sitting by the flowers in the corner,” she said. “Is that your daughter you are with?” I nodded at her and smiled behind my mask. “She’s very beautiful. It’s nice to see the two of you laughing,” the woman continued. “Happy Mother’s Day.”
At that moment her mother came out of the restroom and gave her daughter a brief hug. “Mira a Dios,” she repeated firmly.
As I walked back to our table, my own daughter looked over at the yellow bundle before turning to me as I sat down.
“Hey, mom,” she said. “I’d give this place all checks, wouldn’t you?”
Feeling those allergies welling up again, I saw Escher’s famous image morphing into a stairway to heaven. In fact, two stairways. One going up and one coming down.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].