In an especially hard year for moms, we at Jezebel wanted to honor a few of ours on the occasion of Mother’s Day. Below are photographs and some of the copious reasons we love them; here’s to all of ours, and all of yours.
I don’t hear much from my mom when she’s traveling. I give her a hard time because when she’s on the East Coast she’ll call every other day asking about my health or my job or my dog but when she takes the camper to Florida—or whichever national park she’s favoring at the moment—it’s like she’s disappeared off the face of the Earth for a few months. I only bring this up because imagine my surprise to receive this photograph of my mother wearing clothing that absolutely does not belong to her, riding a bike she does not own, along with a text reading “thought you’d like to see what I’m up to these days” sometime around the winter of 2015.
Unfortunately for everyone—and especially me—my mom is a genius. She’s a classical musician who speaks a number of languages who happens to be most comfortable watching a Red Sox game at a dive bar in sweats. She was a very good mom to a kid, a particularly difficult role to play as a single parent trying to handle me in my awful teenaged years, all while she was in school and switching careers. But she’s become a gloriously indispensable resource to me as the parent of an adult. If our relationship were a Lifetime movie it would be a series of montages of me calling her up for advice and/or tearfully telling her she was right all along. Luckily, neither of us are built that way, so we mostly spend our time together drinking margaritas (her favorite) and watching the game while we argue about whose politics are most full of shit.
My mother came to this country from Taiwan almost 40 years ago, and as she tells it, my father was not at the airport to pick her up. Using her newly-acquired English and what she refers to as “her charm,” she apparently navigated her way through customs, out of the airport, into a taxi, and to the apartment in Berkeley where she would begin her new life. I don’t know how true this is, because of my mother’s tendency towards hyperbole and also, because in my family, we don’t talk that much about the past. I know more than enough about my mother’s present—she has spent her empty nest years moving from city to city, forging an eastward path from California, heading towards New York, where her children live. I can only assume that she will eventually make it back to Taiwan one day.
My mother and father divorced when I was young, and I lived with my father, for the majority of the year. (Though Mother’s Day is not about single fathers, I would be remiss and also removed from the will if I did not mention that my father did an incredible job raising two little monsters, and that he was as much of a “mother” as any man can be.) Summers in California meant spending lots of time with my mom, who did what she could to impart her many gems of wisdom, but has also embedded a part of her personality in myself and my sisters that manifests in different ways. Her aforementioned “charm” used to embarrass me when I was younger, but seeing how people respond to my mom’s generosity of spirit has made me less of a bitch about it now than I was then. People like her! I (begrudgingly) like her. I see her in myself and now, solidly into adulthood, I am no longer embarrassed by our similarities.
I love my mom because she is my mom, but showing that love is uncomfortable. We are not huggers. We do not say ‘I love you’ unless it is life or death. But when my mother suffered an aneurysm in 2019, 5,000 miles way in Taipei, my sisters and I got on a plane and spent two weeks in and out of hospitals, managing caretakers, speaking to doctors in broken, grade-school Mandarin, and dutifully feeding her pumpkin stew that her sisters brought by special request. My joke has always been that my mom, who runs half-marathons and is extremely active, will outlive us all. For a moment, though, it seemed like she wouldn’t, so we showed up.
My favorite picture of my mom was taken years before I was born, at a party she threw to celebrate her graduation from law school. (She’s on the left.) My mom never intended to become a lawyer; like a lot of events in her life it was a way to make the best of things. She’d taught elementary school, a job she loved. But New York City, on the verge of bankruptcy in the ’70s, announced plans to lay off public school teachers and she realized she would be cut. By the time her pink slip arrived she’d cobbled together a plan to get herself through law school. Lawyers, she surmised, had job security and respect. She could wear pants to work! She might even get her own office. (If you’ve watched a working girl movie set in the ’80s, you can probably guess this is not quite how it turned out.)
My mom is wildly, inarguably scrappy. The kid of Hungarian Jews—people who saw their families obliterated in war—she is constantly ready for disaster, a character trait that’s given her a baffling array of skills. She’s maneuvered public housing systems by befriending supers and bullied doctors into giving her excellent care. Most of my middle school teachers were scared of her and she fought with a solid chunk of them, usually because she believed their lessons were sexist, racist, or otherwise harming students. She is unafraid of embarrassment, and is deeply funny and generous, especially with the friends she’s surrounded herself with for decades. My mom has shown me that fighting can be a love language by her readiness for battle over any injustice perpetrated against someone she cares about. Obviously she’s the reason I work at Jezebel, duh.
Because we’re both large personalities it’s taken us a while to come to a happy truce; sometimes I think it’s hard for my mom to understand her softer, more comfortable (very American) daughter. But when I look at this photo, I see a single woman in her own apartment filled with excitement about the future and I’m in awe of her, the life that she built for herself and all that it cost her to do it.
- Alexis Sobel Fitts
There’s a photo of my mom that I think about pretty regularly. It’s not this one, which is of her as a mom, showing two of her (eventually) five kids crowding not only her life but her physical space.
The photo that I’m thinking of is from before, but not too long before. It shows her on her wedding day to my dad, in Taipei sometime in the early 1970s. In it, she’s radiant—so glowingly beautiful that it hurts me right in my chest—and wearing a white lace gown (one that was borrowed from a friend, she informed me once when I asked about it, and several inches too short), flowers in her immaculately curled hair, the biggest smile on her face, which is tipped up like a blooming flower as she stands next to her husband and faces her future. It’s a smile that says she knows whatever comes next is going to only get better and better.
She’s so full of joy and hope in this photo that I can’t fucking stand it, because I know at least some of the disappointments that would happen after.
My beautiful, not-yet-mom. I love her too.
My mom is an immensely creative and funny person. She’s a skilled miniaturist who decorates elaborate dollhouses in her spare time, making tiny rugs by hand out of twine. She is a master prankster, pulling out electronic fart machines at Passover or fooling family members into thinking our dog pooped on the furniture with a piece of convincing rubber. When I was a child she threw legendary Halloween parties, artfully decorating the house in cobwebs and DIY’d creepy dolls, staging elaborate scares for the children in the form of surprise masked intruders (i.e. my dad in a Michael Myers mask.) Did I mention she also made that little Madeleine costume I’m wearing in that photo, for my first Halloween ever?
In addition to being the hardest working woman I know, my mom is just mad fun to hang out with. She is a caring, unpretentious, no bullshit person who pulls people in like a magnet because everyone wants to experience her shine. She’s also the reason I have trouble pinpointing when in my life I began to identify as a feminist, because in her household it was always a given, or else you’d probably get your ass kicked. I aspire to be one-tenth as cool as she is someday.
- Hazel Cills
Of all the photos of my mother, this is probably my favorite. I think it was the ‘80s, definitely sometime before I came along in 1990. She’s still a total babe with a megawatt smile, but when I look beyond that I see the determination and ambition that has driven my mom her entire life. She was a nurse in the Air Force before becoming a nurse administrator at VA Hospitals in Los Angeles. When I was a kid, she juggled that full-time job with law school, which she attended at night. Sometimes my dad would watch me, but there were a few occasions in which I was dragged along with her, sitting quietly in a corner reading a book while my mom focused on the professor. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was working tapping away at her laptop, writing a book. That project fizzled out, but her work ethic never did. It’s a quality that I grew to value as I got older; when I was a teen, my mom just seemed like a workaholic who didn’t know how to relax unless it was on a smooth jazz cruise with her friends (yes, really). But now that I’m 30, I’m stunned that she managed to balance late motherhood with multiple career paths and creative pursuits at the same time without losing it.
Just a month ago, she casually told me that she’s dabbling with a screenplay. She downloaded the necessary software and everything. She showed me some of what she’s done so far: I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty solid.
I’m less adept at handling multiple passions; despite my ambition, I’m easily overwhelmed, prone to procrastination, and I often let anxiety get the best of me. My mom, acting as my wannabe manager of sorts, is always there to push me in the direction I need to go, even though I’m more apprehensive, more ready to launch myself into a sea of doubt. Her brand of tough love cheerleading can sometimes be frustrating—yes, I know, mom, I need to work on my book proposal!—but she always means well, and frankly, sometimes I just need a little push. I’m my mother’s only child, I already make her proud. But I want to do more than that: I want to show her that her hustle and drive has inspired me to become the best possible version of myself.
Besides, I owe her a cruise.
My mom is 84 and lives 2000 miles away in Wyoming—which is hard enough to begin with, but like many people, the last year has been spent in a sort of low-level state of panic about her well-being. At some point, however, she’s become a kind of covid warrior, the elder woman who yells at people not to hug her or for not wearing a mask; this week, she told me over the phone that when people tell her they’re not getting the vaccine, her response is: “Oh good, they can just give it to another Mexican immigrant like me. Thank you!”
When did my mom become so fierce? She was always like that, I think, but it took me until young adulthood to recognize it. She didn’t marry my dad until she was 32—pretty uncommon for a woman from a large, religious, Mexican family in the midcentury—because she was having too much fun in the ’60s driving to Vegas with her girlfriends, where they’d dress up to go gamble and date boys they met from the bands there. When my parents divorced a little over a decade later in the ’80s, she had to learn to pick up her life and start over. It wasn’t always easy—sometimes she worked several jobs at once, and even now she’s still clocking in every weekend at the Off-Track Betting despite my protestations—but she plowed through it with the determination and strength of a ram, offsetting her own punishing work ethic with a love of indulgences (tamales; gambling; reading; gaudy costume jewelry) that she passed down to me, her only child, with a singularly focused adoration.
This photograph of her is from 1972, several years before I was born; as I get older I realize we are starting to look exactly alike, wig notwithstanding, and it makes me so proud to have come from such a determined, funny woman, who in her advanced age is only becoming more adventurous and politically radical. I feel immensely fortunate to have had so much time with her, and can’t wait to get back to Wyo to give her a long-delayed hug.
-Julianne Escobedo Shepherd