I've never been a stickler for celebrating a birthday on the exact anniversary of the birth, but my nonchalant attitude about it didn't come from my mother. Her birthday was her special day, and any acknowledgment of it before or after that exact 24-hour period didn't count. Today's the day, and I'm not about to let it pass without recognition.
My mother, christened Wanda June, acquired a new name on this day when she held my firstborn child. As much as she loved my new daughter, she was less than thrilled at the idea of being called "grandma." After all, she was only 38 years old. Before the day was out, she had named herself "Mama-Too"--as in, "I feel like I'm her mama, too." More grandchildren followed, and the name stuck.
For most of my adult life, I've lived geographically apart from my mother. We kept in touch by mail or long-distance calls, and in the last two decades of her life, I lived near enough that we could visit two or three times a year. Always, though, I was acutely aware of the distance between us.
Her death in 1999 came unexpectedly. The shock of it left her children and grandchildren with a pain so raw and open that, for a number of years, it was her death, not her life, that came to mind when we thought of her. I can still tap into that pain in the span of a heartbeat, but time has been kind. In the memories that come first these days, she is very much alive.
I'd read enough to expect that the grief would diminish with time, but something else has happened that I never would have imagined. The distance I always felt between my mother and me has completely disappeared. In fact, I feel closer to her now than I ever have, and the whole idea of that just knocks my socks off.
In the first years after Mother's death, I'd frequently catch myself wanting to pick up the phone to call her and talk about something I'd seen on the news or something that had happened in the family. Each time was a fresh reminder that I couldn't talk to her anymore. And then, one day, I discovered I could. She doesn't talk back, so it isn't exactly a discussion that we have, but we do have a connection.
This reconfigured relationship with my mother isn't a "ghostly" thing. I don't see her or hear her. I don't "feel her presence" in a literal sense. Somehow, I just know she's with me. In fact, it seems that she's with a number of us, and she's chosen a unique way to make us aware of it.
My mother was famous in our family for her uncanny ability to pull into a crowded parking lot and find an empty space right in front of the door. It happened so regularly that we began to take it for granted, and it never failed to delight her.
I don't know how long it was after Mother died--a couple of years at least--before I noticed that I'd been having a string of exceptionally good luck finding parking places. I began to pay attention. It doesn't happen every time, but more often than not, I'll drive in and find a prime parking spot without any extra effort. Soon after I noticed this unusual good luck, I got in the habit of saying, "Thank you, Mama-Too," each time it happened.
After a while, I mentioned it to my daughters. Both of them told me they'd begun to notice the same phenomenon as they ran their own errands. They, too, began responding, "Thank you, Mama-Too."
After a year or so of privileged parking, I went on a road trip with my sister and her husband. Miles and miles into the trip, while we were talking about Mother, I risked raising their concerns about my sanity by telling them, in a joking way, that Mother had been helping my girls and me find good parking places. To my surprise, this wasn't news to them. "The same thing's been happening to us," my sister said. "It happens all the time, and every time it does, we say, 'Thank you, Mama-Too.'"
Now, you might think our fortunate parking experiences are just random events in the universe. Or you might think that nothing's changed at all, that we just pay more attention to the good parking experiences than the bad ones. You might possibly be right, but don't even think about saying those things to me. All I know is that every single time it happens--and it happens a lot--I get a huge rush of joy and an immediate mental image of my beautiful mother, laughing out loud in delight at her own cleverness, letting us know she's still around.
Happy birthday, Mama-Too, and thank you. Thank you for everything.