It’s Mother’s Day. On June 8th of this year, my mother, Joy Neiter Kramer Hays, will have been dead for ten years. I wish I were celebrating the holiday by spending the day with her, and to make my happiness complete, I’ll include my sister Natasha in this fantasy as well.
My mother loved New York. So I’ll picture the three of us spending a day in Manhattan: having bagels for breakfast, visiting the Frick Collection just off Fifth Avenue, resting afterwards on a bench in Central Park and then walking uptown through the park to the Metropolitan Museum, where we’d have lunch before tackling the European paintings. We’d all three have our books with us, even inside the museum, so whenever we felt tired, we could drop into chairs side-by-side and read for half an hour, telling each other afterwards which novel we were in the middle of and what we were enjoying about it.
The mother I’m imagining isn’t suffering from increasingly serious dementia, as she did during the last ten years of her life, particularly after my father died. I’m remembering a woman of forty-ish who lived in West Vancouver, BC, with her husband and daughters. She was preparing to become a reference librarian, after years of having worked part-time in primary-school libraries while my sister and I were small. I can easily see this Joy Hays in my mind’s eye: energetic and content, living in a beautiful city and enjoying her graduate studies. She was someone my sister and I looked forward to coming home from school to and talking about our days with.
Here are just a few of the things I have to thank my mother for:
She taught me to love reading and being read to, and I’m sure the many evenings she read out loud to Natasha and me are the reason I love audiobooks. Would we have gotten to know so many outstanding children’s books without having a children’s librarian and a booklover for a mother? Would we ever have read Elizabeth Enright’s wonderful quartet of novels about the Melendy children? Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn? All the Oz books?
Having grown up with parents who made it clear to her that she wasn’t beautiful enough to please them, my mother never cared how Natasha and I looked, as long as we were relatively neat. Perhaps she sometimes cared too much about our accomplishments, but that was a hell of a lot healthier for us than focusing on our attractiveness.
My mother and father worked to give us the atmosphere of a happy marriage to grow up in, in deliberate contrast to their own parents, who divorced when my mother and father were still young. As an adult I came to realize that my parents weren’t always quite as content with each other as they had seemed to be, but I’m still grateful to them for giving us such a peaceful childhood.
My mother shared her love of history, especially the history of England, with her children, telling us about English kings and queens as if they were the heroes of exciting fairy tales. My BA in the history and literature of England was a direct result of her enthusiasm.
My mother also told me to stop biting my fingernails and to stand up straight. In this she failed completely: I still bite my nails as badly as any five-year-old, and I have developed permanently rounded shoulders as a result of my terrible posture. She begged me to keep up with the piano; I haven’t played since I left for college. And so on. Of course there were lots of things my mother did or said that I ignored—or that drove me round the bend. Today, they don’t seem important. Instead, I feel lucky to have had her shaping my life.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mama.