A Mother’s Day without my mother

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

Based on a post originally published here on May 13, 2012

As Christopher Buckley wrote in his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, when the last of your parents dies, you are an orphan. This is poignantly true if that parent is your mother.

“You lose the true keeper of your memories, your triumphs, your losses. Your mother is a scrapbook for all your enthusiasms. She is the one who validates and the one who shames, and when she’s gone, you are alone in a terrible way.”

This month marks both the occasion of my mother’s birthday (she would have turned 89 on May 7th, which was coincidentally the second birthday of Everly Rose, the adorable great-granddaughter whom she would never meet) and yet another Mother’s Day when I didn’t send my Mom a card and flowers. I’m getting used to that reality by now. She died five years ago on February 21st, 2012. 

My mother’s life began on a rural Manitoba farm in unspeakable poverty and abuse, a true story so hideous that it reads like fiction. She was somehow able to overcome the trauma of this horrific childhood through pure tenacity and a fierce work ethic (as we described in her obituary) – as well as one brilliant stroke of pure luck.

As a teenager in the 1940s, one day she met a very good-looking young man named Peter who, like her, loved to dance. The two fell in love and then kept up that love affair – and their dancing – throughout almost four decades together until his death in 1983.

My mother raised five children, largely using pure animal instinct. She’d had no personal role models for good mothering. As a child, she never knew what it felt like be kissed, hugged or even treated kindly by a parent. She had only a third grade education. And at the age of 13, she’d been sent away on the train to distant relatives in Ontario because, as she told us in her matter-of-fact tone: “I was too expensive to feed“.

But even as a new mother in 1950, she somehow trusted her own innate ability to care for her firstborn child (me!) For example, she could not bear to hear babies “cry themselves to sleep” – a common parenting trend in those days. So every evening, her baby would be sung to sleep in a rocking chair near the window. This bedtime routine continued for all five of her babies over 15 years (my sister Catherine and I were taking turns rocking our baby brothers to sleep by then).

And despite the popularity of the ultra modern custom of bottle-feeding in the 1950s, my mother was a trailblazer in breastfeeding each of her five babies – despite little support from either her family doctor or any of her bottle-feeding friends. For example, although she was a full-time working mother when I was born, she and my babysitter arranged a clever way to signal when her hungry baby woke up. The sitter, who lived right across the street from my parent’s corner grocery store, would close her living room curtains when I was ready for feeding. During the day, my mother would constantly check that window, and run across the street to nurse her baby if the curtains were closed. After feeding time, the curtains could open again until the next signal was due.

Until I had my own babies three decades later, I never truly appreciated how heartbreaking it must have been for her to have a sick child (my little brother, David, who was in and out of hospital throughout his toddlerhood) – as well as working full-time and raising her four older children.

As a mother, she was strict, no-nonsense and demanding with her children – all to avoid producing a child with a “swelled head” – the worst possible fate that could befall any kid. She was a “crazy-go-nuts” hard worker, and mercilessly expected the same from those around her. She was short on praise, and long on expectations. You rarely had to wonder what Mom’s opinion on any subject was because she felt freely entitled to rant with an Archie Bunker-like zeal in spite of her children’s embarrassed protests: “MOM! You can’t TALK like that!”

She also had a wicked sense of humour, and a wonderful face that crinkled with delight when she laughed. My mother’s self-taught cooking and baking skills were legendary, and will live on in her favourite recipes passed down through generations of her descendents – although no baker on earth could possibly duplicate my all-time favourite birthday cake: her famous Seven-Layer Mocha Walnut Torte.

Mom with her first grandchild, Ben - 1977

Mom’s first grandchild (my son Ben)

As a Baba (grandmother), she showered affection and gifts upon her 11 grandbabies in a way her own children rarely experienced, but in the universal way that grandmothers everywhere might recognize.

Tragically, dementia stole the last few years of my mother’s astonishing life. When I survived a “widow maker” heart attack in 2008 (on the way home from celebrating her 80th birthday), we made a family decision not to even tell her. She lived thousands of miles away, after all, was lucid during only brief periods each day, and would likely either forget this news, or be confused and worried at being repeatedly reminded of something bad happening to one of her children.

.  ……….Me, my daughter Larissa, and Mom on her 80th birthday

And finally, as I spend Mother’s Day with my own wonderful kidlets today, we’ll all be thinking of their Baba and remembering that she’s responsible for the people we have become. I know she would have heartily agreed with Tenneva Jordan‘s famous definition of motherhood:

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

Joan Zaruk     May 7, 1928 – February 21, 2012

Rest in peace, Mom – Happy Mother’s Day


Q:  Are you too marking Mother’s Day without your mom this year?

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32 thoughts on “A Mother’s Day without my mother

  1. This was the first Mothers Day without my Mother for me. We have had a very adversarial relationship throughout most of my life with the exception of her last several months. I became her caregiver during the period of her vascular dementia, afib and congestive heart failure. Those ended up being such good months for me. I was able to help her with doctor visits, grocery shopping, etc. I felt needed for those last months until she died on April 5, 2017. I am grateful for those months. People ask how I could possibly have done things for her after all we had been through. I always said, how could I not! I have to look at myself in the mirror. I loved her very much. We have to be true to ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My sincere condolences to you on the death of your mom, Sharen. What an amazing opportunity you had to create the kind of relationship with your mother that you always wished you could have! Other daughters may have chosen to justifiably turn their backs after all those adversarial years, but for the rest of your life, you’ll be able to look back on those months and feel good about your choices. Brava!


  2. Hi Carolyn,
    Thanks for your lovely tribute to your mom – she truly sounds like a remarkable woman who overcame early bad experience, another great example of resiliency!

    My mother died in 2001 and had a lot of trauma in her childhood as well, and, in addition suffered in later life with a severe mental illness and other health issues. In spite of that, she was a beautiful, artistic and very loving mother.

    For some reason, I am missing her more this year than ever – that need for “mom” is eternal, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Chris. Like each of us, our mothers are complex, challenging and flawed human beings, doing the best they know how to do as parents given their own sometimes crippling backgrounds. You’ve hit upon a wonderful perspective to view our mothers: to be able to accept the reality of the difficult parts with compassion, while at the same time appreciating the parallel reality of all of those good parts.


  3. Oh Carolyn what a beautiful tribute to your Mother. She was a remarkable woman who raised you, a remarkable daughter. You brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes. This is my first Mothers Day without my mom. I am an only child. My dad passed when I was only 18. I feel very alone now. This is a very sad day for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear ashmirmom – that first year after a mother’s death is the very hardest, a year of ‘firsts’ to somehow get through (the first birthday, the first Mother’s Day, the first of every significant family holiday). My condolences to you on your loss…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As a mother who is a mother… THANK YOU for this true to the heart article, Carolyn. I will never, ever forget the day/moment my mother died, nor the long term heart break following. Christopher Buckley’s quote sums it up profoundly.

    Today I will happily celebrate my special day with my Victoria daughter…and receive long-distance love from my Calgary daughter. I am blessed to have had an amazing Mom and thrilled to BE a Mom! I recently had stent placements, so count my many blessings and love each moment with even more vigorously then before.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jackie, I just love your perspective! Happy Mother’s Day to you, too. I spent part of my morning with my daughter and her family, and the afternoon with my son and my sister enjoying the Conservatory Garden Tour out in the sunshine. Good for the soul, and especially good practice all day to “love each moment”, as you say! Hope you had a wonderful day, too…


  6. SO many parallels, it’s kind of shocking. Though my mother did NOT grow up poor, quite the opposite, I suppose, she grew up the fourth unwanted child of an unloving mother. She determined that her own children would never feel that–and we did not.

    She was fiercely independent, a trailblazer, earning a masters degree in the 1950’s and working (albeit part-time) throughout our childhoods. I was the second of four, and I was the sickly one. One of the most amazing memories I have of my mother is that of her standing out in our backyard at midnight after the first hard freeze (in Michigan) and hosing down our backyard to create a magical skating rink for us every winter. Our job was to maintain the rink–either that or you didn’t skate. We were spoiled by love, but much was expected of us. I, too, lost my mother in 2012– on November 30th. Dementia did not steal her life at age 86, heart disease did–congestive heart failure, in fact. So, we are heading into five years, and I still miss my mother everyday–talk to her often.

    I feel very much like the person Buckley describes–a motherless child. I’m getting to the point in my own life (65) where most of my friends are motherless, too. For many of us, Mother’s Day is a bittersweet trip down memory. This year, my only child, my wonderful daughter, is pregnant. So, the holiday also holds joy and anticipation for the future, for which I am most grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Penny – such a sad portrait of your mother (“the fourth unwanted child of an unloving mother” – can you imagine?) Yet you yourself were “spoiled by love” despite that reality of her own childhood, another reminder that it is indeed possible to rise above one’s upbringing through love.

      I saw firsthand this morning how time can affect our sentiment on Mother’s Day, from sadness in the early years after my own mother’s death – to pure joy this morning when my daughter showed off for me the delightful art project gift from her toddler Everly Rose on her 3rd Mother’s Day.

      And being a grandmother is the greatest thing in the world, take it from me!!


        1. That’s what all my girlfriends (who were already grandmothers) told me, too, Penny! “Just wait until you have your own grandbaby!”

          As one of my blog readers wrote on the day our little Everly Rose was born: “This little child will do more good for your heart than anything your cardiologist could prescribe!” She was right!!


          1. That’s so wonderful to hear. I guess I’m going to have to move to where they are! (Hoping that will soon be Colorado. Right now they’re in North Carolina). Big changes coming–and I want to be there for my daughter. AND I want to teach my grandbaby to swim! (I was swimming laps today, and that’s the thought that went through my mind). 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. That would be the ideal scenario (living close to your grandkids). I never met my own grandparents until age 9, and then decades went by before seeing any of them again. My own kids grew up thousands of miles from both sets of grandparents, too, so relied on annual holiday visits. That absence of grandparents is a phenomenon that’s absolutely unheard of in most so-called third world cultures. I feel very lucky and grateful to be spending time with our grandbaby virtually every day as she grows. Good luck with those swimming lessons…


              1. Our daughter grew up far from all family, and that’s rough. We did our best to take her to visit cousins and grandparents several times a year. But nothing can beat having family nearby. Fingers crossed!!!

                Liked by 1 person

  7. As well as being Mother’s Day, today is the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death.

    She too had 5 children, well 6 actually, but 1 didn’t make it past toddler-hood. She was an urban kid; grew up in working class Montreal during the Depression and they were never sure when the next meal would be. She talked about her father, a train engineer, willingly taking continuous cuts in pay so that other men wouldn’t be laid off. She was extremely bright, wanted to go to university, but couldn’t afford it and made darn sure we all had post-secondary education. Similarities: only woman on the block who breast-fed, the swelled head thing, and dementia later in life that meant we didn’t bother telling her my 1st marriage had broken down. “How is your husband?” she would ask (she couldn’t remember his name). “Fine” I would reply, even though he lived thousands of miles away and I had no idea if he was fine or not.

    She also had a wonderfully whimsical streak and was drop-dead gorgeous, with a lovely smile for everyone she met. Goodness, I am going on, aren’t I?

    Your wonderful story got the memories bubbling to the surface. Thanks Carolyn!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Deborah – what an interesting array of memories you describe about your Mum, her Dad, and unfortunately that dementia diagnosis at the end. Thanks for sharing them here…


  8. Many of us had abusive, negligent mothers who caused great harm. For us, I say, motherhood is not sacred. It can be something to be avoided due to trauma, as I did, and a severing of the parental relationship altogether.


      1. Actually, Juli, I do believe motherhood IS sacred. Sadly, there are women who don’t see it that way–as a sacred responsibility. I worked for Juvenile Court, so I have seen far too many negligent and abusive mothers. I am so sorry that this was the case for you, as well. And, you’re right, Mother’s Day is not a day to be celebrated if your relationship with your mother was scarred by abuse–or even if it just was not a good relationship. I think people sometimes feel this public obligation to present this saint of a mother on this day. The reality is often far from that. I don’t really believe in these holidays, much. It is mostly a time for greeting card companies, candy stores, and florists to make money.

        But, for me, it has also become a time for me to reflect on my relationship with my own mother–and to keep her alive in my heart.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree with you, Penny. I don’t focus on the commercial aspects of the day (although my sister Bev IS a florist so I would like her shop to be successful for her – “I Fiori” on James Street North in Hamilton, Ontario if any of you live near there, hint, hint!)

          Mother’s Day, however, is the one unique day of the year that I do reflect specifically on what you describe – keeping my mother alive in my heart. True, we may not “need” one designated day, but since we do have one, I like to take advantage of it by focusing on all of the mothers in my life who have impacted my life. (Yesterday, for example, we all delighted in my toddler-grandbaby Everly Rose repeatedly calling out “Happy Mama’s Day!” over breakfast while she had her mum and BOTH grandmothers together at the same table, a rare event because one grandmother lives hundreds of miles away; we’re teaching her early on to appreciate these important women who love her).


  9. We are truly the same generation: my mother reared five children with the same ethos: don’t praise your children or they will get a ‘swelled head,’ she married a man who loved to dance and they danced their married life, I’m the oldest, she has eleven grandchildren, and there would be no point in telling her what happened to me, as dementia is still stealing the last years of her life.

    She will be 94 in June. Fiercely funny and loving – and yes, we knew what she expected. I am sorry your mom isn’t still with us, but you have such wonderful memories.
    Happy Mother’s Day, Carolyn.

    Liked by 1 person

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