The Queen’s Birthday, August 12, was also Mother’s Day here in Thailand. Pictures of the Queen had been hung up around the country starting in early July. Queen Sirikit was born on a Friday, so sky blue is her color and sky blue banners, bunting, flowers and flags rained from poles and podia and everywhere sky blue shirts were sold. Classes at the school had been hit and miss the week before, with everyone getting ready for celebrations and the official state holiday. I had heard other volunteers grumble on social media about their own classes being cancelled and no actual schoolwork being done; all in preparation for the big day. This happens often in Thailand, with other days and other important things like Sports Day, Boy Scout Day, festivities and events that have little to do with the 3 Rs. My school was having a ceremony for the mothers the day before the official holiday and I was invited. I asked the English teacher I’d been working with when the celebration would start. “8:30?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “or 9:30. Or 10, maybe.” This is Thai time.
All the students were assembled in the large hall, the only one with a stage, all sitting on the floor; boys on one side, girls on the other; arranged by grades, kindergarten in front, grade 8 in the back. All had on their school uniforms. The mothers were seated in plastic chairs in the back of the room. The teachers took up the space along the wall between the two wide doors all wearing their sky blue polo shirts.
There was a speech by the principal and loud speakers blared the national anthem, the royal anthem and other familiar Thai songs that everyone knew the words to except me. Then the students took the stage. There was a song, a dance and a silly skit all to entertain the mothers and show off the talents of the children. I sat on the sideline smiling, genuinely enjoying the program. Gifts were handed out to the students and I assume they would eventually be handed over to the mothers or grandmothers, the caregivers.
At the close of the festivities, after the anthem was played again, the mothers of the students were called up to the stage by groups. The mothers knelt in a line facing the audience and the kids were called up to kneel before their mothers, bow and wai with respect and present them a flower to pin to their shirt or blouse. The kindergarteners started, lifted onto the raised stage by their teachers. One little boy knelt down with a group of his classmates when he first got onto the stage, plopping himself down quickly to stay out of the confusion around him. I watched as one of the teachers picked him up and carried him across to the other end of the stage to his own waiting grandmother, whom he recognized too late.
The kids got older with each successive group and I watched more and more of them walk off the stage wiping tears of gratitude from their eyes. My smile abated and I got to thinking about my own mother and whether we had anything similar to this celebration back in the States, back in the day. I know we celebrate Mother’s Day, but it is so much more different. When I was young I may have drawn a picture or written a poem, but that went away. I sent cards; Hallmark made it so easy. Did we have school programs when I was a child in the early 60s? I don’t remember, although it seems like it’s something we should have done back then, between drills down into the cold war bomb shelters.
I think many of us have lost touch with that honor and display of respect that is so deeply rooted here in this Asian and Buddhist culture. I know I lost touch with it when I was young. I can’t conjure an image of myself in grade 7 or 8, shedding a tear of gratitude for my mother. I would have been red-faced and self-conscious scrambling off the stage as quickly as I could. I loved and adored my mother when I was little and then became embarrassed by any show of affection. Once I left home, I disregarded my parents even more thoroughly. I visited once or twice a year and called when I thought of it. I had my own life to lead, my own issues to work through. I didn’t need my parents and they survived quite well without me. I took to scribbling rote platitudes onto my store-bought card, an expensive one that didn’t require extra postage. That’s how Mother’s Day evolved for me.
My mother was 56 when she died. “Too young”, most said. I’m older now than mom was then, 26 years ago. But when my mother died I started to realize I could have, should have, been a better son, one who showed more respect throughout his life, not just those last few weeks in the hospital or now with shame and regret when I stand at her gravesite. I wish now that I could have knelt before my mother when I was young and offered her a flower and a heartfelt thank you for everything she did and was. Wouldn’t it have been nice?