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How To Celebrate Mother's Day When You've Lost Your Mom
From May 2014

When you lose your mom, holidays are the hardest. You know that big family-oriented ones will be rough, but Mother’s Day and birthdays? They knock the wind right out of you.

My when my mother got sick with a late-stage cancer at 66, we would have 18 months to say a long and imperfect goodbye. For most of my life, we’d spoken every day, communicating through food (let’s go for Indian!), guilt (you really should call to see how they’re doing), shopping (I picked up this coat for you, 60 per cent off!), and gossip (you won’t believe who I met at an open house).

She still tried to tell me how to dress, how to live my life. I tried to get her to let go of old grudges, of work stresses. We surprised and disappointed and delighted each other many times over those months after her diagnosis. But when she died, I still felt like we hadn’t said a meaningful goodbye.

You get told that two years is the magic number for processing the jagged parts of grief. I went to a therapist who said much the same thing. But he recommended an extra boost to push through it.

“Find a ritual,” he said. If you don’t practice religious traditions, find something that is material and meaningful to you to help process and ritualize grieving. I procrastinated. What kind of ritual? A shrine? Light candles? The two-year anniversary of her death passed and I still had no closure. Most days I was fine, but then some trigger would put me back in that place of grief again.

A few days before what would have been her 70th birthday, I decided to create a ritual that would celebrate her spirit. And that’s how “Judy Day” was born. I made this announcement on Facebook:

Planning Judy Day this Saturday, in honour of what would have been my mother's 70th birthday. You are welcome to join us Saturday night at her favourite Indian restaurant for supper, but if you can't make it, you can celebrate by doing one of her favourite things.

  • Buy lottery tickets.
  • Bake a chocolate cake (I can send you the recipe).
  • Get a nice haircut. At a good place. In a fancy neighbourhood.
  • Get your kids haircuts too, already. Do you want them to look neglected?
  • Splurge on a nice outfit for the Jewish New Year. Also? Something fancy for the kids. I don't care if they'll only wear it twice.
  • Look up new and exciting takes on Rosh Hashana recipes. Decide to go with your old ones, because they work.
  • Drive someone somewhere they need to go (if you have a car).
  • Take a walk or drive through your favourite neighbourhood and fantasize about what houses you would have liked to buy.
  • Start a conversation with a stranger. Give them too much personal information.
  • Go to Kensington Market. Buy some fresh veg from the Israeli.
  • Call up everyone you love. Tell them you love them.

I began my day with a mission, posting each update on Facebook. And I was thrilled to see my community joining in.

The night before I had I sent around the recipe for dark chocolate cake (use only high quality cocoa, my mother would have piped in) to those who asked and had my cake ready to ice in the morning.
And then we went for a trim. Haircuts for my mom were not just about maintenance, they were about homecoming. On return from camp, travel and even university, I would come home to find a haircut had been booked for me at an upscale salon. I would lamely protest I liked my hair long and shaggy. But I always relented.

I posted a photo of our fancy haircuts:

And even more people joined in! “My daughter’s hair is cut, lottery tickets purchased”
“We got ours all cut for Judy day too!”

My mother loved to shop for clothing, but when her grandkids came along, she took it to a whole new level, and was soon on first name basis with the salespeople at Baby Gap Hey, Judy, did you hear about our sale? We bought her grandson this sharp cardigan for Rosh Hashana.

I called loved ones. To my delight, so did my friends:
“Today, in Judy's honour, I will call the people I love and tell them I love them,” promised an old friend who had lost his own mom the same year.
“Don’t forget to call you sister and tell her you love her,” chimed in my sis (I did).

One of my mom's favourite neighbourhoods was Toronto's Kensington Market. The smells, the blasting music from storefronts, the bustling streetlife.... She had her favourite vendors, but she usually knew their nationality ("The Romanian", "The Portugese Brothers") before their names. I got produce from “the Israeli” and purchased fresh mangoes and pears for breakfast.

Down the street, we bought a bunch of lottery tickets at the place she said was lucky (she never won, so I am not sure where this "lucky" impression originated). There were three stores across the city she visited weekly. I used to chide her for wasting money, and she'd always say, "Oh, let an old lady have her dreams."

Judy Day rocks! With the exception of lotto, we do all the things I love," was a friend's response to this pic.
“I love that you've created a wonderful tradition of remembrance, all your own,“ wrote an old co-worker.

I am used to public sharing, and I like to say that I come by the whole “revealing too much personal information to strangers” bit honestly. I got this message from a friend who had met my mom when she was agent at an open house:

“Your post reminded of a time a little more than six years ago: I struck up a conversation at an open house with a stranger who seemed like a friend. Immediately shared intimate details of my life to my partner's embarrassment. She, in return, proudly told me about her daughter-the-world-famous-blogger-about-to-have-a-baby-really-any-second and-so-on.”

I read this to my husband and we both got weepy.

Our day ended at her favourite Indian restaurant, a South Indian vegetarian place in Toronto’s East end (we drove our car-less friends from the West end). It's a schlep across town to eat dosas in a basement, but it's so consistently good, the owners so friendly -- in fact, I think that's the key. For my mom, her life outside of family was all about a network of loosely-connected people and their stories. Nothing gave her more pleasure than to revisit these bonds over the years, to share a laugh, eat a meal, brag about her children.

And as my network of of close and loose connections chimed in throughout the day, I increasingly felt that I'd tapped into the essence of what had made my mother happy. And that day her memory felt so alive and for the first time in ages, connected to joy.

We ended the day with her famous devil's chocolate cake from an out-of-print cookbook from the '80s. She made it for every dinner party. For my son's birthdays. It's really, really good. But use the fancy cocoa. Extra Brute.

Since Judy Day, the jagged parts of grieving started to smooth over, and I have felt lighter. Holidays and anniversaries are still very hard. But this year, I know what I will be doing. I will wake my son up -- he was four when he lost his grandma -- and I will say “Happy Judy Day! Let’s go celebrate the way your grandma would have loved.”

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