May 7, 2010

An Open Letter to Motherless Daughters on Mother's Day weekend

(My mother and I in Florida, April 1967)

On a Mother’s Day morning about eight or nine years ago, my daughter Maya, who was then still in preschool, surprised me with breakfast in bed. On the wooden tray she proudly thrust onto my lap was a cup of orange juice, a whole apple still cold from the refrigerator, and her version of a “cheese sandwich”: a slice of cheese between two slices of cheese.

The cheese sandwich has become an annual tradition in our family, sometimes presented to me on the morning of my birthday as well, and there’s a good chance I might see one this Sunday morning, even though Maya is now twelve and her sister Eden nine. They’re quite capable in the kitchen these days, able to make omelets and French toast on their own, but the cheese sandwich is, well, the Cheese Sandwich. Mother’s Day isn’t Mother’s Day in our house without one now.

I’m grateful for this family tradition, however small, because for many years Mother’s Day was such a dark spot on my calendar. Without a mother to honor on that day, I felt there was no place for me to fit. In the seventeen years since Motherless Daughters was first published, I’ve heard from many readers who’ve felt and still feel the same way. Even those with children of their own feel the absence of their mothers more acutely on the day set aside specifically to remember the ones who birthed us. The initiative for a national Mother’s Day was started in 1907 by a motherless daughter who was looking for a public way to honor all mothers, but somehow evolved into a day to honor only those who are living (and able to physically receive bouquets of flowers and Hallmark cards). But where did that leave women whose mothers had died or were otherwise absent?

In 1996, a small group of women set out to answer this question, instituting the first Motherless Daughters Day luncheon in New York City. They chose the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend to give motherless women a special time and place to honor mothers who were no longer alive. Over the years that tradition has expanded to more than a dozen cities nationwide, including Los Angeles; Detroit; Buffalo, NY; and Orange County, CA. (For a listing, see the Support Groups page at At some point during each luncheon, women join hands and participate in the Circle of Remembrance. They go around the circle and in turn each state their names and their mothers’. “Hope, daughter of Marcia,” I say, when my turn comes around.

There is something enormously powerful about standing in a roomful of motherless women simultaneously honoring dozens of lost mothers at the same time, and speaking their names out loud. How many times a year do I actually say my mother’s name out loud? Sadly, not that many. But on this weekend, she has a whole day of honor. Instead of grieving her absence, it encourages me to celebrate her influence.

For me, the Sunday of Mother’s Day has become a day to spend with my two daughters, starting with a Cheese Sandwich in bed. I won’t lie to you: it’s still deeply sad for me to not have my mother to call on that day. But Motherless Daughters Day—tomorrow—has become the day I set aside to remember her. Not in her final, bedridden state, but as the dynamic, healthy presence she was for the majority of my life. The one who gave me, without either of us knowing it, the foundation I would one day need to manage without her for so long.

This is my 29th Mother’s Day without a mother. A part of me can’t believe it’s even possible to write that; I still feel her presence so strongly in much of what I do. Just yesterday morning I was showing Eden how to separate an egg yolk from an egg white, and it was as if my mother’s hands were guiding mine. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that she taught me to do it herself, in the gold and avocado kitchen of my childhood.

I remember the first few Mother’s Days I spent without her, and how devastatingly sad and lonely they were. And then I remember how empowering it felt to attend that first Motherless Daughters Day celebration and speak her name out loud. “I am Hope, daughter of Marcia.” No matter how many motherless Mother’s Days pass, that statement will always be true.

On this Mother’s Day and Motherless Daughters Day weekend, I extend my warmest wishes to those of you who have lost mothers, the sincerest hope that you will have comfort and peace this weekend, and the blessings of a beautiful and bountiful year. Those of you who’ve written to me this past year—hundreds of you!--have warmed my heart with your stories, and inspired me with your generosity of spirit. You are all such strong, resilient, and courageous women. It has been an honor to advocate on your behalf for these past seventeen years.

With all best everything,