Not once in their lives have any of my children given me a “present.” What I mean is that I’ve never been handed a store-bought scented candle by a confused toddler or an abashed teenager.
I always get the same gift. It isn’t wrapped. It costs nothing and yet is more precious than every trinket in every boutique in the galaxy. My nine children, who range in age from 5 to 27, take pride in it and lavish considerable effort on it, with much laughter, secrecy, and scurrying around before it’s presented to me.
Everyone in my family calls it “the Mom Book,” though technically there are now three of them—each a thick 8½-by-11-inch book of handmade paper, 100 or so pages bound with a plain cover. In every volume, my kids have drawn pictures, written poems, pasted photos, and penned letters. Sometimes their lives and hearts are so full they consume two or three pages. Each entry is dated and signed, even if just with the mark of a thumb in tempera paint.
On Mother’s Day, the book usually makes an appearance after the scalding coffee and cold bagels brought to me in bed about, oh, two hours after I’ve awakened. On Christmas, it’s always the last gift under the tree. As I read and admire the new entries for the first time, the tears well up. Years later, when I look back, I’m undone.
It’s more than the memory of the times evoked by the words—the hilarity, the havoc, the brief periods of sweet harmony. It’s the emotional power evoked by seeing my kids at virtually every stage of their development.
I wouldn’t trade this episodic record for anything: In my Mom Book, a thousand words are worth so much more than a photo. Everyone smiles in pictures. But my tributes trace a topographical path, charting as many downs as ups. It’s not merely a journal or a scrapbook; it’s a multi-volume history of my children and me.
The tradition began in 1995. My closest friend had given me a blank book, an unintentional symbol for a mother whose life was blank indeed.
My husband, Dan, had died from cancer just over a year earlier. Our son Rob, at 11, was angry; Danny, eight, was bewildered; Martin had just turned six and was terrified. The changes that would make us feel as if we could breathe again—the publication of my first novel and Francie, the baby girl I would adopt as a single mom—lay down the road. But I didn’t want my boys’ childhood years and their camaraderie to be sacrificed to grief. I tried to like fishing; I tried to pitch baseballs to my sons in the yard at night—two of the things they had loved to do with their dad. I found that I couldn’t be their father and their mother, too. I realized we needed rituals that would help define our new family.
Casting about for ways to bind our wounds—and bind us to one another—I remembered a story about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, also a widow, who had asked her two children to copy out poems to give to her and their grandparents on holidays. Caroline Kennedy fondly remembered the activity well into adulthood.
Inspired, I handed my sons the blank book and asked them to write me something…anything. Martin’s first entry was on Mother’s Day, drawn in yellow crayon (which meant it practically vanished like a portrait on sand once I laminated the page). It was a stick figure with wild curls holding the hand of a tiny kid. Above us floated something that looked like a dirigible with wings holding a fishing pole with a live one dangling from the string. Although he had gone fishing, for good, Dan was apparently still watching over us.
In 1999 I remarried. My second husband, Chris, adopted my four children, and over the next few years we had three more kids. At some point, there was a discussion about whether the Mom Book should become the Mom-and-Dad Book. A sweet notion, but I quickly squashed it. The Mom Book was reserved exclusively for my children and me.
Occasion by occasion, year by year, the pages have filled with words and pictures, capturing the state of my relationship with each of my kids at a given moment in time. I’ll admit—it’s not always pretty.
When my daughter Francie was four, she drew what looked like a wavering pink head with antelope antlers. An older sibling recorded her words, getting the sentiment right, if not the spelling: “This is a hart.” She wrote that same thing herself, at seven and again at 10, with improved spelling and drawing.
Soon thereafter, Francie and I were on the outs. Some days she just ignored me; others she was weepy and morose. At age 13, she opened the door a smidge, once telling me she needed me more than ever. Alas, by the time she made her next entry in the Mom Book, that door had slammed shut again. Francie’s message was terse and unemotional. It read: “Have a nice birthday. Francie.”
At 15, though, she and I formed something of a truce. On Mother’s Day, she taped in a big, showy, oversize greeting card emblazoned with flowery sentiments about mothers. Next to it she wrote: “I would never say any of this but I want you to know that I bought this card for you.” She went a step further in her Christmas 2010 entry. “If I’m currently the MFC (Most Favored Child), it’s because I’ve worked at it,” she wrote, and added a little row of purple hearts. It reminded me that deep in the sedimentary layers of my sometimes surly teenage daughter, there still existed my loving girl, my “little hart.”
The book shows how my son Marty, too, came full circle. For Christmas 2001, at age 11, he pasted a penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter, and a paper dollar on his page: “It’s not the money which expresses my love but the way it keeps on growing.” Six years later, there were no pennies or sweet words. “This has been a bad year,” Marty, then 18, wrote, referring to the arguments he and I had had over his first serious girlfriend. “We knocked heads every day.” He continued, “With two as close as you and I, our love is bound to make us cry.”
In 2007, the following year, Martin’s transition away from home was documented in the Mom Book. As a homesick college freshman, he mailed a birthday note that I duly pasted in: “Give all your kids a hug. Except me.” He was angry and miserable and, during one of our lengthy phone calls, begged to come home. I, in turn, asked him to hold out a little bit longer, to give his school one more try. Then I hung up the phone and burst into tears, thinking of his deep sadness. Come sophomore year, things had changed. Marty was so busy (and happily so) that he didn’t have time to make any entries.
By senior year, Marty resumed the sweet, affectionate tone of his first offerings. He covered four pages, drawing a seashell, a rose, a sunrise. “No matter what happens in the future,” he wrote, “I’ll always know I had a fan club of one. I didn’t say it as much as I should, but I love you, Mama.”
Just in the last two years, we’ve added a pair of new participants to the Mom Book: Merit and Marta. They came to us in an unexpected way. In 2009 a friend had sent a photo of her new adopted daughters, taken near their orphanage in Ethiopia. In the same photo was another girl, tall and stunningly beautiful, and her sister, a little bobbin no more than four. Our friend said that the girls were probably unadoptable: The elder was already 11, and Ethiopian officials discouraged separating siblings. We hadn’t been hoping for two more on our full boat. Yet they both arrived at our home on Christmas Day.
When Mother’s Day rolled around, Merit, by then 12, confessed that she was alarmed by all the commercials on TV in which mommies received lavish store-bought gifts—like rings and roses. “I have no money,” she whispered to me. “What is this day of mothers?” I had been grateful for the Mom Book before but had never, perhaps, been quite so convinced of its pure and practical value. After all, contributing to its pages costs nothing but time and a little bit of effort. I was going to explain how it worked to her, but before I had the chance her brand-new siblings took her aside and initiated her into the family ritual themselves.
That morning I had my breakfast in bed. My son Dan, who was just about to graduate from culinary school, had replaced the usual cold bagel with a delicate herb omelet. And then, once again, I was handed the book.
Everyone’s contribution was wonderful, as always, but Merit’s—her very first—touched me deeply. She had drawn a basket of ripe, delicious fruit, a bright sun, and a woman with substantial hips (that’s me) doing aerobics.
“Happy Mom,” she wrote, with a flawed command of English but an intuitive understanding of love. “Welcome back home.”
Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of, most recently, No Time to Wave Goodbye ($15, amazon.com). Her next book, Second Nature ($26, amazon.com), will be released in September. The author of The Deep End of the Ocean ($15, amazon.com) and 16 other books, she lives with her family in Madison, Wisconsin.