We had finished dinner and the children were restless. "All right, you can all go out and play for a bit, and then we’ll have pudding," said my friend. The six kids happily quitted their restaurant chairs and scattered out into the square. It was a quiet village in the Lot. One couple had been holidaying here, in Southern France, for years, the other had just bought an ancient townhouse nearby. Watching the children through the open door kicking up a haze of dust over the terrain for a game of pétanque, the adults resumed their discussion about house prices and likely properties.
I took no part. I had other things on my mind. These contented families too clearly reminded me that I was single, that I was childless. Eventually I too rose from the table and went out. The sun was setting. The children raced around, trying to draw me into their game of catch and then gave up, and let me sit on the steps of the war memorial and watch. The local baker came by. He nodded to me, nodded again at the children and congratulated me on my brood. I explained that they were not mine. He smiled, he shrugged. "Un jour", he said.
Never mind days, it was, in fact, many years before I became a mother. Seven to be precise. Through that time I was still single, but I was determined not to be childless. But eventually my daughter came to live with me when she had just turned six, and I was 51. I formally adopted her a year later.
So between that time of the French baker’s well-meant wish and me becoming a mother, many Mother’s Days passed by. In the US, Mother’s Day takes place on the second Sunday in May. The idea of a ‘Mothers Friendship Day’ came to Ann Jarvis in 1868 as she tried to reconcile women who had lost sons on opposing sides in the American Civil War. She died before it came about, but her daughter Anna continued her efforts and Woodrow Wilson made it an official holiday for the US in 1914.
In the UK, Mothering Sunday takes place on the fourth Sunday in Lent, so March or early April, and it is a much older tradition, dating back to the 16th century. Its religious origin was to celebrate the mother of Jesus, and people would travel back to their "mother church", returning to the place of their baptism. But the observance soon took on a secular cast. Servants and apprentices living away from home were granted this day to take part in family gatherings, and this practice lasted well into the 1900s.
Early spring is the right time of year for such a day in Britain. The snowdrops are still out, but rapidly being overtaken by primroses, soon to lead to violets and bluebells misting the woods. Before my daughter was my daughter I used to go to church on this day and see little posies presented to all the mothers in the congregation. I, of course, was not one of them.
But my niece Anastasia, then only 16, was staying with me on once such occasion and she made a Simnel cake – traditional Mothering Sunday fare, breaking the Lenten fast for a brief day – and she carefully crystallised violets and primroses from the hedgerows as decoration.
I did anticipate my first Mothering Sunday as a mother but it was not quite as expected. My daughter had been living with me by then for seven months. She came into my room early in the morning, to announce that there was "a two-headed monster downstairs". "Really darling?" I replied, as I puzzled over the strange meaning of this. What was going on in the child’s mind?
At length I got up and went to the kitchen. And there was indeed a "two-headed monster". Well, not quite, but it fitted the description. One of the cats – goodness only knows how – had dragged a moorhen in through the cat-flap. With a bird’s head at one end, and a white stripe like a badger’s face at the other, it did indeed resemble a "two-headed monster". Perhaps it was us – without the ‘monster’ bit – two, become a pair, mother and daughter?
Later on we joined my lovely friend Edith and her two daughters – one of them my goddaughter – and went to the Roman villa at Chedworth. Edith is a Professor of Classics so we were here to celebrate the Matronalia, dedicated to Juno Lucina, the goddess of childbirth (not me then) but women altogether (so I got in there). We did as the Romans did on such occasions: wore our hair loose – decorum usually requiring it up – presented each other with gifts and gave the household servants (ourselves) the day off.
The sun shone. The low remnants of the walls of the villa took on the warmth as Edith and I sat out and watched our three girls peer at the mosaics, try on the togas, and assist in making wreaths of herbs.
I told Edith about the French baker all those years ago when I had similarly sat on a warm stone and watched other children. Other people’s children. She smiled, "Un jour – and now that day is come". And I remembered something she had said to me when I was still in the throes – painful in mind, if not in body – of trying to become a mother. That "the worst times are as bad as you can possibly imagine". But "the best times are beyond anything you can begin to imagine". I knew then, on that first Mother’s Day with my daughter, that this was one of those.
Today, my daughter is no longer a child. She is a young adult going on into her own life, planning her years at university. But that first Mothering Sunday bore its own results. For what is it that she wishes to study? Classics and ancient history.
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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin