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May 9, 2014

On Mother's Day weekend, things I wish I taught my son

(Continued)

This Mother's Day, I'll be on the opposite coast from my sons and their dad — and from my mother, too. I'll be reading from my new book in Danville, Calif., while back in Massachusetts the assorted members of my two families will probably be just as glad not to go through the motions of a holiday in which none of us fully believe. Through my childhood, in fact, the second Sunday in May passed like any other. "Mother's Day," my father was fond of declaring to me and my sister, "is just a cunning invention of Fanny Farmer candies, Hallmark cards and the florist industry. You should appreciate your mother every day." Not until my 20s did I begin to observe, and feel guilty about, all the brunches and bouquets and missives of adoration my peers lavished on their moms. Imagine my mother's bemusement when suddenly I began to mark the day with calls and cards, even the random potted plant.

Once, when I phoned and Dad answered, I said (amnesiac me), "Did you do something special for Mom today?" He said: "Why? She's not my mother." Which reminded me, piercingly, that my father lost his mother in his early teens — and led me to wonder if the true reason we'd shunned the niceties of Mother's Day had little to do with unbridled commerce.

Readers tell me that my novels are filled with significant mothers. Do I realize this? Do I do it on purpose? The truth is, I don't. I think of myself as a writer of family stories. I write more often than not from a male point of view, and I usually begin by focusing on siblings, spouses, even fathers, before I think about the mothers. (Maybe, when I look in that direction, the light is just too bright.) But the mothers will have their say. Mothers always do. It occurs to me that in the web of what-ifs I spin in each story, I am sometimes trying out or even trying on different ways of fulfilling this role, whether my characters are exemplars to whom I could never live up or cautionary tales above which I hope to rise.

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