My mother was as salty as ever on Mother’s Day – but at least she didn’t compare anything to a vagina | Zoe Williams

My mother hates sentimentality of any sort, but especially the mandated, socially coordinated kind: Christmas (yuck, families); Halloween (American consumerist trash); don’t get her started on jubilees and coronations; and none more than Mother’s Day, the coarse schmaltz of its message, which to save her being a little bit sick in her mouth, I’ll just summarise as: “You’ve been OK, I guess, and I don’t hate you.”

When I was a kid, I bought her a brass vase in a junk shop, and stole some tulips from a neighbour’s garden. I’d never put my hand in my own pocket to buy anyone a present before, and I was so excited by my ingenuity and largesse that I sounded her out in advance: how did she feel about flowers? “Hate cut flowers. Flowers should be in the ground.” Purple ones? “Even purple ones.” What if you’ve stolen them? “It’s better if you don’t steal.” What about an intricately carved, probably by a factory, brass vase? “Well, if you don’t like cut flowers,” she said archly, “then you don’t have very much need for a vase.” Someone had to intervene quietly and say: “She’s bought you a Mother’s Day present, you idiot.

She still wants to see us on Mother’s Day, she just doesn’t want any presents, but it’s a bit more complicated than that: anything you can eat is fine (fudge, cheese), unless it has Hallmark overtones (chocolates); wine is acceptable so long as it isn’t fizzy. A card is OK, but only if you’ve made it, and her quality control is extremely exacting, which is bold, for someone with such poor eyesight.

Family dynamics stay constant for a really long time, and then the next generation comes along, and they change, fast, a lot. So, my sister and I both had our eldest children there, her 17-year-old daughter, my 15-year-old son, and all the pool balls were shooting off each other in directions we did not plan. Nothing delights my mother more than when our children are sarcastic to us: she sees it as cosmic payback. But, as sisters, we revert to our own adolescent dynamic, so the kids are in this upside down world, where they’re rewarded for sarcasm; and the typically cast-iron mother/aunt union has been completely destroyed as we squabble over whose turn it is to put the knives and forks out.

My niece had drawn an extremely intricate portrait of her grandmother’s cat, which my mother peered at for a really long time, before concluding: “That looks nothing like Mimi.” She sounded affronted, as if her granddaughter had deliberately caught the cat at a bad angle and immortalised it in pen and ink. (The cat has no bad angles, it’s a cat.) This went in with a bullet to her top 10 least-gracious responses of all time, along with the occasion when she told my other niece that her origami looked like a vagina, and the time when she told my son that his card was so inept, so lacking in depth of perspective, she’d assumed I’d done it.

From the cat’s and, indeed, my mother’s point of view, all this was a sideshow to the main drama, which was the quest to get Mimi to take a steroid. It was vitally important, because she’d taken one the day before, and if a cat goes cold turkey, something terrible happens to their personalities. Nobody knows what, but it’s like the infected in The Last of Us, apparently.

I said, “Maybe mash it in paté?” And my mum said, “What kind of paté?”, as if the battle for the cat’s soul would be fought on that slice of terrain between Ardèche and Ardennes. And I said, “Whatever they have in Sainsbury’s Local”. Meanwhile, my sister magicked up a jar of hare paste. It appealed to the cat and the mission was accomplished. “Why have I got hare paste?” my mum asked. “It was a …” My sister really didn’t have an option, except to speak very quietly. “It’s a present.” “Oh,” our mum said. Then, a Mother’s Day miracle: “Thank you.”



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