I’ve got a beach vacation coming up, my weekend birthday plans are set, and I’m going to hear some great Winston-Salem music tomorrow night …. and yet, I have a bittersweet, long-ago memory in my heart that is playing in an endless loop.
When I was a publications editor at the Winston-Salem Journal, I was in charge of the annual Mother’s Day contest for elementary school students. Guess who got to read all 800+ essays. One year, the grand prize was a gift certificate to a toy store for the child, and a restaurant gift certificate for the mother, so that the family could celebrate Mother’s Day with a fancy dinner on the town. When I called the teacher of the winner, it was clear she was proud of her student, but she called me back later, and sounded panicked. “This child is very low income, and I don’t know if a gift certificate to that restaurant will mean a lot to the family,” she said. “They are struggling to buy groceries. Could you offer the mother a cash prize instead?”
I wasn’t sure I could help. When restaurants sponsor contests like this, they often do what is known as a “trade-out” — they trade a gift certificate for advertising space in the newspaper. I knew that getting cash out of that deal to give to the winner wasn’t going to be easy, but somehow, the advertising director pulled some strings. A lot of the details have faded from my memory, but I can clearly remember calling the mother, and telling her how special and talented her boy was. As I read the essay to her over the phone, I could tell she had tears in her eyes, too.
Mother’s Day is here again, a hyper-commercialized holiday for women who carry us inside of their bodies for 9 months. When it comes to expressing my emotions on this occasion, I so often stumble with my words and my actions, and the fact that I have more than 15 years of experience as a mother doesn’t seem to help at all. Not only that, I’m a writer — I’ve been a writer my whole life. I have written thousands of essays, short stories, poems, and letters. I have decades of experience editing and improving what others have written. I have worked for several years at educational testing companies, reading and scoring thousands of essays written by children of all ages. Despite all that, I fail at writing one original line inside a preprinted Mother’s Day card. It’s not easy, no matter how much I wish it could be. I think that’s why today, as I sealed that card and wrote “Mom” on the yellow envelope, I thought of that sweet school boy, the caring teacher, and the prize-winning essay that flowed as effortlessly as maternal love.