I stand in front of a Hallmark sea of serif scripts, misted roses in the background, all bearing some variation of the message, “Mom, you’re my fashion consultant, my boyfriend consultant, my greatest confidante.” Or maybe, if the card is for the younger set, it’s a kicky cartoon squirrel or gopher, with blue eye shadow and a pink mini skirt, shouting through her little buckteeth, “Mom, you’ve always been my rock and my BFF!” Father’s Day cards show Dad as a funny, flawed goofball trying to roast marshmallows with his five iron. But the Mother’s Day cards all seem to conjure a mother who bakes cookies every day and listens patiently to your troubles—a perfect sort of June Cleaver image that doesn’t ever really capture the complications, highs, and lows of my relationship with my mother.
Take, for instance, the incident of the refrigerator earlier this year. I had been staying with my parents after my father had heart surgery. My brother flew in from California to help. Our aim? To offer whatever assistance we could with cleaning and laundry, lifting anything over five pounds, retrieving the newspaper and mail from the end of the icy driveway, driving to the delightfully deserted Shakopee mall for a daily walk, and finding room in the fridge for the generous and welcomed donations of chicken soup, casseroles, and lasagnas.
Let me say here that I knew the fridge was sacrosanct. My mother’s parents grew up in the Depression, and Mom was a child during World War II. I grew up hearing stories about the victory garden in her backyard and the shoes they made out of plywood and extra rubber. The fridge is an odd savings account of sorts, the equivalent of money stored in a mattress. But it is a sort of savings that doesn’t appreciate. While unloading it to make room for new food, we found pesto that had expired in 2006, bottles with a dab of salad dressing expired in 2007, a two-year-old fruitcake, leftover wild-rice soup that had gone truly feral, and three different containers of sour cream in various states of sour.
I figured, I am doing the thing that you cannot bear to do yourself. I figured, I am saving our lives.
Nowadays, Mom and Dad don’t go through food the way they did when they had three kids living at home. But my mother’s head has never really adjusted to this. In her mind, she is always the mother of three. In her mind, she is always ready to feed a family. But we kids are all in our forties now. As was, maybe, the cheese I threw away….
My brother and I emptied the fridge one night after Mom had gone to bed. The next morning, she came shuffling out in her slippers, opened the refrigerator, looking for yogurt and a clementine, paused, and said, “[Profanity].” Then, “Shannon’s been in here.”
Why not my brother? Because, like the refrigerator, he is sacrosanct. It’s the mother-daughter power struggle that counts, the two of us making room for each other to be women. And we’re approaching the years where I’ll be mothering her a little more, which is problematic: She and her mother had the same issues.
For the rest of the week, my mother gave us dirty looks and loudly mourned the loss of various dressings and sauces. That’s when I realized that, in her mind, we hadn’t merely thrown away food, we’d thrown away her ability to nurture us.
I haven’t yet found a card that quite addresses any of this. And so the one I might have to write myself will read: Mom, when I cleaned out your refrigerator, you looked like you wanted to knock my teeth out, and I’m sure, in that moment, you regretted paying for my orthodontia. But I need you to know now that there is no expiration date on my love for you.
Shannon Olson is the author of two novels, Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling. She lives in St. Paul.