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When Mother's Day Can't Be Contained in a Card

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Even Anna Jarvis lamented the "Hallmark Holiday" that had taken over her grand idea.

Jarvis, the founder of the carnation-and-card-soaked occasion for gifting otherwise known as Mother's Day, spent her later years railing against the commercialization of "the second Sunday in May" (a phrase she trademarked in the early 1900s).

Here's her famous take:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother -- and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

And so, I'm wondering how best to honor the two fabulous mothers who have literally given me the life that I have: my mother, Ruth Schneiderman, and my wife, Kelly Haramis.

Ruth Schneiderman, née Hertz, was born in The Bronx just after World War II. She grew up in a succession of two family-owned delis, and, when the restaurants folded, under the tutelage of her teacher father and self-taught hospital-bookkeeper mother. Ruth attended SUNY-New Paltz in the 1960s, and under the spell of the period, moved with her girlfriends to Manhattan upon graduation. She taught in Spanish Harlem, living what I imagine to be a quasi-bohemian lifestyle, probably never imagining that upon her marriage to my father and his acceptance to graduate school at the University of Delaware, she would find herself teaching near Dover (a town as much like New York City as penguins are like rocks), before following my father to Allentown, PA and, later, St. Louis, MO.

As my sister and I aged into our teen years in Allentown, Ruth ran a small non-religious nursery school in an Allentown church, corralling dozens of children into their thespian star turns in elaborate, end-of-the-year theatrical productions that let her play at Broadway manager -- recapturing a bit of what her New York City days must have been like.

Yes, she's amazing. But not for these reasons.

No, because upon my father's sudden brain tumor and subsequent terminal cancer diagnosis, which I detail in an earlier post, my mother found herself at the head of a family for which my father, for all his well-intentioned assertiveness, had always handled household business matters. Now, over six years later, with my father amazingly still alive but in severely degraded condition, my mother juggles dozens of doctor's appointments, hundreds of pills that must be weekly allotted to their proper plastic dispensary and endless arrays of bills and medical expenses... all with the genius ferocity of Alexander the Great. In between, she paints with more feeling each day, supervises crafts and games with my daughters (while doting-at-a-distance over my nephew in upstate New York) and participates in a senior's book club for which, in many months, she is the only attendee.

Leave it to Ruth to do it all of this with deft skill and vivacious optimism.

Kelly Haramis, my wife, is a different type of dynamo. A journalist for 12 years, six of these at the Chicago Tribune, Kelly kept the theater bug at bay while she edited and wrote about everything from beauty products to fashion to parenting. She interviewed Beyoncé and Salma Hayek. In 2005, Kelly started writing what became a monthly column, "Journey to Adoption," detailing the long process to adopt our first daughter from China.

Over the two years that Kelly described the endless paperwork, the endless questions from family and friends and strangers, the endless waiting, and eventually, the pregnancy that brought us our second daughter, Kallista, six months after our adoption of Athena, she received so many supportive letters from so many readers in Chicagoland and beyond that I can still barely articulate her bravery in sharing her story -- and her struggle to have a family -- so publicly.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, still, when she announced in late 2008, after her section at the Tribune folded and she got caught in the layoffs that preceded the paper's bankruptcy, that she was enrolling in the Second City improv training program. What? Improv?

No, her goal was not Saturday Night Live, but rather, to perform, to be on stage, to feel the freedom that this amazing art form can provide to its most dedicated practitioners.

I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when she called me after a spontaneous monologue in a class at another training center, iO. She shared with her class not only our long journey to have a family but also about her amazing mother and my second mother, Jean Haramis, who unexpectedly died after being hit by a truck while in a crosswalk.

Yet I am not at all surprised that the one-woman show that emerged from this monologue, "Double Happiness: A Tale of Love, Loss and One Forever Family," finally hits the Chicago stage, May 18, for a two-week run. She wrote the show in coffee shops while our daughters were in pre-school, on scraps of paper on the train to and from her improv classes, in moments stolen between trying to do everything for everyone.

Kelly keeps our children's imaginations alive while she reads to them at the lunch table or when she declares a "silly dinner" where everyone can toss napkin snowballs. Kelly fosters Athena's intergalactic interests by helping her construct a spaceship out of couch cushions. She lovingly re-furnished a giant wooden dollhouse, kept from her own childhood, for Kallista. She drives the children to a thousand activities including ballet, soccer, gymnastics, ice-skating and art class, along with "numbers" and science clubs. She makes sure that Athena, who cannot tolerate artificial food dyes, always has a fresh cupcake for birthday parties. She reads Kallista endless fairy books.

Each time I see Kelly with our daughters, tickling them and singing with them and giving them even more of what she knows they will need to become the strongest women possible, I know that I am looking at the bravest woman in the world.

And each time my mother, Ruth, manages to finish a painting after caring for my father and caring for my father even more and then caring for everyone but herself, I am looking at the bravest woman in the world.

Anna Jarvis is right.

I can't give them anything, really, that's worth half as much as they have given me.