Mending the Misinterpretations of Mother’s Day
Lessons from a life with my mom and my grandmother
One of the many things that me, my mother, and my mother’s mother all have in common — aside from DNA — are first names that make people go, “Huh?”
I’m Ali, a white woman. My name confuses many a Uber driver, who expects a man when they only see my name before a pick-up. My mother is Juanita. She’s an American-German-Italian woman, and why she is named Juanita confuses many a server at Mexican restaurants. Her mother is Elena. It’s a name that fits a German-Italian woman to a tee, except for the one time when she introduced herself to my ex. She pronounced her name as the more European “EL-enn-nah” — not “El-LANE-nah,” the way we had pronounced it all of our lives. After many decades, she seemingly had changed her mind about using the Americanized “translation” of her name.
I recently discovered that when it comes to motherhood, the concept of translation has a much bigger meaning: Since girls have a lifetime’s worth of eggs in their bodies from the moment they are fused together inside their mother — this means that the egg-form version of me was inside Juanita’s body — when she was in utero in Elena’s body.
Not only was the egg that made me inside of my grandmother decades before I was born, I learned that some of my DNA was passed through the placenta to my mother, literally transmuting the makeup of my mother.
Whenever Mother’s Day comes around, I feel the guilt imposed on me by advertisers of all the gifts my mother would seemingly expect and adore. Giving tangible things on this day will make me feel like I’ve done a good job showing my mother how much I love her…right?
Since I’ve recently learned the true origins of Mother’s Day, I don’t feel so guilty about the commercialized holiday.
The deep commercialism surrounding the day wasn’t what Anna Jarvis had in mind, in 1908, when she hatched the idea to honor her mother’s sacrifices after she died.
She wanted us to wear a carnation flower on the day to signify what our individual mothers gave us, not the recognize all mothers as a whole. It was a very private, humble way to reflect and recognize the person who brought us into this world. No huge song and dance or overwrought feelings of “What do I get her?!”
I like to think that if Anna Jarvis was still living today, she might suggest that children mark Mother’s Day by utilizing the type of affection their mother holds most dear (you know, “languages of love”). This new interpretation of the holiday might hurt retailers, but it might also be less of a trigger for folks without the in-your-face advertising. It could also result in new conversations about what we truly want and need in our relationships.
Instinctually, I’ve always known that new, shiny things are not what my mother wants on this day. She wants me to spend time with her, doing things she’s never done before, like protest.
Or be the only one she trusts to dye her eyebrows, or make things together. She wants to continue to strengthen and celebrate our relationship.
Recently my mother asked me, “How would you like to improve our relationship?”
It felt novel — a little out of the blue. We’re not a family of critics (unless judging the fashion choices of local TV newspeople counts). The question itself made me feel like more of an active participant in our relationship by critiquing it constructively rather than succumbing to my “good girl” nature as a daughter that is taught to obey and simply follow the lead. It was so meaningful to me.
I asked her if we could rethink our morning text messages, which always asked me what was on the agenda for the day. I knew the questions were a way of saying “Hello!” and provided an opening for her to follow up later. It felt great to have this built-in-in-by-DNA support system which allowed me to open up and share on the days when I learned something consequential or achieved something big — but it also forced me to talk about all the things that weren’t quite working out for me — bad dates, fights with friends, feeling directionless. And for a while, when luck wasn’t on my side, that felt like a lot. But now, with our revised rules in place, I reach out as often as she does.
When I think about gifts between mothers and daughters, I think of how our mothers formed us. My mother’s mother, Elena, gave my mother, Juanita, her gift of curiosity, quirky sense of humor, the drive to be almost too productive, a deep need for connection, and an inclination to go against conformity. When my mother had a huge career pivot at the age of 50, propelling her gifts for writing into the world, my grandmother had laid the groundwork, deciding it was finally time to get her real estate license — at 80 years old.
My grandma always asked questions to invite connection and enlightenment and pinched my cheeks with a warm-hearted wink. Elena and my grandfather would use Italian for lovey-dovey talk. And German when they fought. So when I was growing up and fell or had an accident, I was silently terrified when my deep-voiced grandpa would sing a German song to me while applying a Band-Aid. I didn’t understand a damn word. All of the “ichs” and guttural sounds coming out of my grandfather sounded like I was getting in trouble — or he was casting a spell on me or something — despite the kind look in his eye.
I had a similar experience years later when I took refuge at my parent’s house after a breakup shipwrecked the life I was living. Welcoming me in the guest (now my) bedroom, was a new piece on the wall. It was a quote by Toni Morrison, saying: “When you know better, you do better.” I harbored my feelings around what that quote communicated to me for quite a while until it finally burst out of me when I replaced the artwork.
I knew, I knew that my mother meant no harm and that it was intended to be inspirational and healing — like the old German First Aid Song. Instead, I read it as ‘My relationship with my ex got fucked up because we steered the wheel too far in the wrong direction,’ because to use Toni’s words, ‘We didn’t know any “better.”’ I thought the quote was shaming me, and telling me that after he left me, I should know more about life and its bumpy meandering roads — so therefore, I should do better next time. I must.
My mother was heartbroken when she heard how I interpreted it. I felt like I couldn’t win. If I didn’t say anything, I would have felt silently judged by a quote on the wall, staring down at me as I slept. And once I spoke my truth, I felt remorse.
As painful as they are, the misinterpretations and aversions we experience in life teach us a lot. They force us to break through and confront the feelings or situations we may have otherwise sidestepped. They can transform relationships for the better.
Now, when my mom and I talk, I have a willingness and feeling of ease and comfort when our conversations go below the surface. I know that we both can stomach the bumpy roads that life presents. Now, the clouds over my head have dissipated, and my eyes are clearer.
I’m ready to take in the intended message of Toni’s quote, which is more empowering. It’s no longer misinterpreted in my mind: When it’s your first season of putting all your heart and effort into tending your garden, and the flowers die, sometimes prematurely, you will use that experience to teach you how to mend the mistakes of the past and create a much fuller, lively garden.
Now, I’d put that on a wall.