(by Aimee Lee Ball)
I have, in a box lined with acid-free archival paper, a Mother’s Day card that I gave to my mom when I was about nine months old. Apparently, she chose not to notice that the handwriting was my dad’s, preferring to believe that she had a genius daughter. It was the first of hundreds of cards and notes between us. We had no trouble talking to each other (quite the opposite), but the written word allowed us to be more formal, more eloquent, more contemplative, more sentimental, occasionally more mushy.
My mother put great stock in the written word. I have an apology that I wrote to her, repeating ten times: “I will never lose my pocketbook or key again.” I don’t know how old I was when this infraction occurred—the handwriting is childish, and I was still addressing her as “Mommy”—but I guess she thought that my contrition would be more heartfelt in written form than an easily tossed-off verbal apology. (She may have been right. I don’t think I ever lost my pocketbook again.)
Mom loved greeting cards for all occasions—birthdays, congratulations, thank-yous, national holidays—even if she was going to see me in person to hand me the card (which she certainly did on Mother’s Day; I would have needed a doctor’s excuse to miss that day with her, although as adults, we lived 100 miles apart). When she was still able-bodied, she’d make her purchases at the drugstore or the kind of shop that sold wrapping paper and ribbons, intent on selecting the exact right tone—occasionally silly, usually sweet. When spinal stenosis robbed her of so much mobility, she’d make her own cards—one of her
late-in-life art projects, along with the pottery classes at her retirement community. I think every one of my friends got a tiled trivet. It was like having a kid in camp.
The significance of greeting cards may have started a long time ago for her: I have, in that same box, from a grandmother who died before I was born, a vintage Valentine to “Daughter Dear,” on the back of which is written in my mom’s handwriting, “From my Mummy, ages ago.” And so the tradition continued—for my mom, there was always a good reason for a card or written message. Among my keepsakes are:
· A note expressing her pride for me putting my apartment back in order after painting (“You went ahead in business and in your home”).
· A note of thanks for helping to “get my life back” after her hip replacement.
· A birthday wish for “the best daughter in the world.”
· Ardent admiration for my “snappy writing.”
· A get-well wish when I had bronchitis and couldn’t talk to her.
· Hope that we would always find something interesting to do when I visited.
· A question about a gift she wanted to buy for me, on the back of a card from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
My mom was past 40 when I was born. I wonder if she had some sense of a shorter life span together than other mothers and daughters might have, if she recognized in some inchoate way that she was creating documentation of our relationship that would live on after her—
a more permanent record than phone calls. Writing can be an imperfect rendering of personality, but I can hear my mother’s voice in her handwriting.
The cards and notes are precious to me, but also hard to look at, now that my mom is gone. Although they are flattering, sometimes bordering on saccharine, they make me wonder if I was appreciative enough while she was alive. She was such a strong presence that, in order to forge my independence, I had to put physical distance between us, only returning to the place of my childhood—her home—for visits. I sometimes had to remind her that she could have an unexpressed opinion, and I did not always share my confidences.
There’s a story I know that is not about me, but it could be: An African-American friend had tightly coiled, kinky hair, while her sister, by luck of the genetic draw, had long, smooth locks, which she often wore in a braid down her back. One day when the girls were young and their mother was out of the house, my friend took a scissors, cut off her sister’s braid, and casually tossed it behind the sofa (much to her sister’s horror). When their mother returned, she took one look at her shorn daughter and exclaimed, “My hair! My hair!”
That was my mom too. She didn’t understand that it was not her hair. She didn’t quite get the psychological concept of separation that must take place between parent and child in order to have healthy, well-adjusted humans. It was a lifelong source of consternation for us, and I don’t think I ever gave her enough of myself, or appreciated that her unquenchable longing for connection was about pure love, not control.
I did not inherit my mom’s pleasure in greeting cards—they usually seem commercial and impersonal to me—but I certainly carry on her appreciation of the written note and its staying power. I have two telephones (yes, they will have to tear my landline out of my cold, dead hands), but when something important must be conveyed, I do not call. I write.
This Mother’s Day, as always, I will buy a big bunch of my mother’s favorite lilacs and make one of her specialties, Crab Imperial, in the shells that I inherited from her. The scents and tastes are a poor, pale substitute for her presence, but I’ll take it.
5 T. butter, divided
1 T. flour
1/2 c. milk
1 1/2 t. Worcestershire sauce
2 T. dry sherry
1/4 c. mayonnaise
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground pepper
1 lb. fresh lump crab meat, drained
1/4 c. bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 450 F.
Melt 1 T. butter in a small saucepan over low heat.
Add flour, whisking, until smooth.
Cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute.
Gradually add milk.
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, 2 minutes or until thickened and bubbly. Remove sauce from heat.
Stir in Worcestershire sauce, sherry, mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Melt 3 T. butter in a medium skillet over medium heat.
Add crab meat, and sauté 1 to 2 minutes.
Off heat, stir in sauce.
Spoon mixture into 4 buttered baking shells.
Melt remaining 1 T. butter in a small saucepan, and stir in bread crumbs.
Sprinkle on top of crab mixture.
Bake for 10 minutes or until hot and bubbly.