She looks just like me. My great-grandmother, Mary Blanche Youtz Engle, has the same brown almond-shaped eyes, squarish nose, and ample babyface cheeks that take up a majority of facial real estate. We have the same pouty sideways mouth and brown hair, both straight and wavy. We have the same serious look that might be concentration or could be mischievous secret-keeping.
I know all this because of one antique photograph, a portrait taken when she was about ten, framed and sitting quietly in my parents’ living room for my entire life.
Besides noting the uncanny physical resemblance, I had never thought much about Mary Blanche until now. She died at age thirty from influenza during the 1918 pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, also known as the Spanish flu, which infected around 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population at the time.
She had just given birth to her sixth child, all boys, and was living in Martinsburg, West Virginia with her husband, Peyton Engle. Her death, as well as the deaths of her sisters, came after the initial viral outbreak had passed in the spring of 1918. They died in the second wave of influenza, in the fall of 1918, just months after they thought a quarantine had spared them.
It’s very strange to consider celebrating Mother’s Day this year, knowing that we are still in the first wave of this pandemic and that so many more mothers, fathers, and grandparents are going to get sick and some will die alone in hospitals, forced to say final goodbyes via FaceTime because visitors are not allowed.
How bitter and horrible is this vision, now a common reality for so many Americans? How does this new existence square with a holiday founded to celebrate motherhood, but really designed to induce last-minute guilt purchases of spring planters, Hallmark cards, and champagne brunch?
Capitalism loves a holiday but I have never been a big fan of Mother’s Day, not because I don’t love my mom, but because I am generally cynical about the constant pressure to buy shit we do not need or even want. I am thankful that my parents, husband, and son have been able to stay healthy so far throughout this pandemic, but I would be an idiot if I didn’t pay attention to my own family history, which proves that no one is safe as long as Covid-19 persists.
My parents live close enough to spoil their only grandson in person at least once a week, and have done so since he was born nine years ago. For the past two months they have been physically isolated from us and I know that they yearn for their grandson’s smile and mourn their old lives, which may never be the same. Even when our state is “back open,” my parents will still be vulnerable to this deadly virus; it could be years until they are able to move about safely in the world again when a vaccine is available or herd immunity is proven. The 1918 pandemic lasted for about two years, and this amount of time is impossible to rationalize or fix into a realistic timeline.
Now that we are living in a new world where all other human beings are potentially lethal, holidays are especially confusing to navigate. We can pick up the phone and call our mothers, but FaceTime has limitations, especially coupled with the sobering realization that it could be years before it is safe to hug, share a meal, and enjoy an afternoon with extended family members. Although I have long thought Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day) to be bullshit holidays that I grudgingly participated in, this year it feels different to me, more complicated, more poignant, more sad but also more important than ever before.
We are all faced with a weirdly limited and dire reality, but this is an opportunity to consider the value of our families and friends. I am taking some time to consider my own close relationship with my mom, and to give thanks for my three grandmothers who loved me excessively before passing on. Holidays, especially Mother’s Day, are actually more powerful when faced with loss and longing, and physical distance and sickness somehow distills the love we feel for one another, even for family members who are dead.
For those who have lost their mothers, especially recently, Mother’s Day transforms this absence into a pain-filled trial that must be endured while the rest of us with living mothers, no matter how complicated our relationships are, get to squabble, drink wine, share a meal, and not think too deeply about any of it. For those whose parents are no longer living, it’s a painful reminder of what others have that they don’t, an entire day filled with gnawing grief and bitter realizations about how unfair life is.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed all of this for everyone, and it’s not safe for families to be together, especially with grandparents and extended families. For those forced into physical distance because of sickness or the threat of it, especially for health care workers who are living in hotels and garages and separate areas of the house in order to protect those they love the most, this absence feels even more profound. Perhaps this is the value of such holidays, especially right now? They can teach us, through loss and longing, to more clearly value those we love most and realize that all the dumb things we are supposed to buy them are a distraction.
I know that I am lucky to have a family I love very much, both my blood relatives and chosen family that I have been able to share holidays with. I am thankful that my mother is healthy enough to fight with me about dumb things and that I have always known how much she cares about me.
In comparison, my grandfather lost his mother when he was just eight years old and his father was not equipped to raise six boys without her. He grew up living with different aunts and uncles, passed around to different homes and schools, never living in the same house as all of his brothers and then losing one of his younger brothers to early-onset diabetes as a teenager. He was an ecstatic teller of Huck Finn-style wild tales, but I don’t remember him ever talking about his mother, although he would pick up our framed photo of her at times and remark that she had been a beautiful woman.
Right now there are so many families reeling from recent losses to Covid-19, and so many more struggling to put food on the table and to pay bills and keep businesses afloat.
How can we honor our mothers in a way that is respectful of the wave of suffering proliferating across the planet? How can we channel our love and energy into good deeds that offer more than a gardenia in a plastic pot and an overpriced greeting card?
History shows us that pandemics bring death and destruction and that survival is not guaranteed for anyone. I am at a loss most of the time, attempting to navigate the new normal and to make the best of a difficult and often tragic and seemingly hopeless situation that is full of so much more danger than ever before.
Realizing how precious and temporary everything is, especially our relationships with those we love, is the one silver lining I can point to from this time. None of us are going to last forever and time well spent is the only real resource we have. Although I feel much less control over so many aspects of my life than ever before, the one thing that I feel capable of right now is telling my mom that I love her and communicating how important it is to me and her grandson that she does everything she can to stay safe and healthy.
Mom, I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.