The Mother of All Holidays

When my brother Paul and I were in middle school, we ordered a “personally engraved tribute plaque” for our mom a few weeks before Mother’s Day. Being teenagers, we forgot all about it until we found ourselves face-to-face with a tough-looking teenager at our front door holding a small plastic-wrapped object, stamped C.O.D.

“You ordered a plaque,” he said.

Of course, we were broke. So we did the next best thing—we begged Mom for twenty dollars.

“What for?”

“We can’t tell you!”

Sensing our desperation, Mom gave us the money, and we quickly turned it over to the stranger, who handed us the package and left.

“Happy Mother’s Day!” I said to Mom, nearly shoving the plaque in her face.

She slowly opened the wrapping and stared at the minuscule plaque, fingering the thin plate on which her name had been cheaply etched. Brimming with something south of admiration, she couldn’t help herself: “This cost twenty dollars?” Our mother’s name rubbed off in a matter of weeks, and the plaque developed sickly green splotches, like moldy bread. It later found its way into a cardboard box in the garage and eventually was forgotten.

But the memory of that gift stays with me. It was pathetic as tributes go, but then the same might be said of Mother’s Day itself. The very idea that an entire year’s worth of appreciation can be captured in one day, one card, or one gift is realistic only in sitcoms and Hallmark stores. If groundhogs, dead Presidents, and the Super Bowl each get a single day of commemoration, motherhood should get a month or more. After all, in New Jersey suburbs like the one I call home, where stroller traffic is a bigger problem than parking, the job of motherhood is on display 365 days a year. But I’m not a mom, I’m a dad, so I asked my wife and the other moms in my life, including her mother and my own, what they think of the holiday.

My mother-in-law, Judy, is ambivalent. “I think Mother’s Day exists today primarily for the sake of card stores, restaurants, florists, and perfume companies,” she says. “On the other hand, if I’m forgotten, I’m hurt.” Note to self: No cards or flowers for Judy this year, but don’t forget the phone call.

My wife believes that the holiday means the most not to moms, but to their young children. “It makes little kids feel good about themselves to have a chance to reciprocate feelings of love and affection they get from their parents,” she says. Note to self: Get gifts for the kids to give her. Until now, my children, a six-year-old and three-year-old twins, have made cards for her at school, but not much else. So far, they haven’t hit me up for a twenty.

Finally, I called my own mom at her home in Cedar Grove. It turns out that she has no recollection of the plaque event. When I reminded her of it, she responded in a way that brought it all back to me: “I gave you twenty dollars?” Her own take on Mother’s Day is definitely more tribute-oriented. “You thank your mother for raising you,” she says. I’m not sure if she means that as a comment or a commandment. Note to self: Call Mom more often.

Whatever your perspective, you can’t go wrong by giving moms their due a day early, and a day late. A week early, and a week late. Months early, and months late.

And you know what? My mom’s never asked for that twenty bucks back.

Joel Schwartzberg is senior producer, new media, for the PBS program NOW.

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