Mother’s Day for Motherless Daughters

“If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully. Stories about food show a strong connection. Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business. The more a daughter knows about the details of her mother’s life — without flinching or whining — the stronger the daughter.” ― Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

My mother, Elizabeth Pearl Penumaka, died three and a half years ago in July 2011. She died suddenly and unexpectedly, with no time for goodbyes or reconciliations, no final hurrahs, no time to prepare herself or ourselves — as if one can prepare for that. The grief of losing her is something that is impossible to describe, a constant numb ache behind your breastbone, magnified in moments when you least expect it. Those days you get awful period cramps and you want to go home and curl up on the couch and have your mother rub your back. Those days you hear a funny story, or read a great book, or eat something delicious, or eat something not-so-delicious. You crave her gulab jamuns, her palak paneer, her off-key singing, even her fury during your teen years when you challenged her every word.

And of course, this weekend. This month of May, when everything around you reminds you to send flowers to your mom, make brunch for your mom, treat, splurge, lavish, and spoil your mom in gratitude for everything she does for you. This one day which takes up so much space all around us, permeating our news feeds, emails, billboard, commercials, and conversations. I even googled this morning “mother’s day with no mother” to try to find someone or something that could validate my experience, only to come up miserably short.

But don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful. It is incredible to hear the stories of each of my friends, celebrating their mothers, planning brunches and getaways and quality time. But here is the horrible truth and I will finally admit it.

I am jealous.

This jealousy intensifies my grief until I am blinded. There is no greater reminder of her absence than this very moment, which is silly because I never had the postcard “Mother’s Day” with her, even when she was alive. She was not a woman who enjoyed shopping in open-air malls and small boutiques. She could care less about bottomless mimosas (an area in which we strongly disagree). My sister and I got pedicures with her once, when I was about 10 years old, and then never again and we never will. But she was beautiful and vibrant and engaging and giving in so many other ways. Growing up, she would take me and my sister to the library every two weeks so that all of us could load up on a backpack full of books. She picked me up in the middle of the week during my first year of college when I had my first flu away from home. She worked in the slums of India, educating families about leprosy and followed her passion for medicine and service until the day she died.

So how can I celebrate my mom this Mother’s Day? I cannot participate in these rituals; the breakfast soufflés and fresh peonies in a mason jar, delicately arranged on a reclaimed wood breakfast tray, as much as I crave them. So I write about her, remembering her in my words and admitting that yes, this holiday is painful for me. And that’s okay. This Mother’s Day, instead of lusting after what I simply cannot have, I choose to share my stories and to hear yours too; unflinchingly.

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