The pictures always show the moments when people are looking at each other, children are hugging, leaves are glowing with sunlight. Cropped out of the frame are the trash cans, the random strangers, the ugly billboards. We rarely share pictures where the family is fragmented, someone looks bored, or clouds are casting a gloom.

There’s something sad about holidays — Mother’s Day, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve. There’s always an ideal that is not met, some dream that is not realized. I never talk about this because it would be like saying, I thought there would be more.

I asked for an all-family hike for Mother’s Day. I wanted to get the teens out into wild, raw nature, untangled from their devices. I wanted the woods to pull deeply at something inside them. I wanted us to be free, I wanted us to feel like one.

I chose a rugged hike up a mountain, far enough away that the drive would be like the road trips we used to take. The forever views from Chimney Rock might open up something in them. 

The teens and boys ran up the hill as if it were a race to the top. I felt like a lumbering groundhog, never able to get close. My husband tried to be the link between us, always hanging somewhere in the middle. But when I would finally catch up — the older kids lounging on boulders or balancing on fallen logs — they would tear away again.

Diana hung back with me and sang the dark side and light side Star Wars theme songs, told me about how Professor Poopypants got his new name of Tippy Tinkletrousers, asked who made the Big Bang, and talked about how she really, really wished we could have a little brown and black dog like the one she saw on Dude You’re Screwed 2.  

One time she said, “I’m afraid you’re going to die from the coronavirus.” We were near the end of the trail and I could hear the creek rushing below. My toes were jamming into the ends of my boots as I chose rocks to slow my descent. “And then,” she said, “who will let me not eat all of my vegetables?”

We don’t know how to talk about how we feel, so we talk about what we see — parents washing dishes, driving to work in suits, hiding the unliked vegetables — leaving the strongest, most lasting gift of love unspoken. 

I still don’t know how to tell my parents how much I love them. It feels as painful to show my feelings as it is to think they may never know them. And how do we talk about the sadness? How do I say I felt alone on Mother’s Day even though I got what I asked for?

Sometimes I wish I could call off holidays. We unknowingly make people feel poor without roses on Valentine’s Day, let down if New Year’s Eve isn’t the year’s best party, or vaguely dissatisfied when a life is celebrated with a dozen cupcakes and toys bought on Amazon. Is it the poverty of our rituals, or is that the real longings are never satisfied? 

Maybe I have expected that others could fill the emptiness inside. To love me so much that I forget how little I feel.

By the time we neared the end of the 4-mile trail, I was limping, three family members had already raced to the car in a final sprint, a tiff had erupted, and no one seemed in a better mood than they were before. The drive home didn’t remind me of good times, and in fact the only thing good about it — the lack of traffic coming back into D.C. — was a sad reminder of the pandemic. At home everyone went their own separate ways, mostly on screens, and I disappeared into my room.

Special moments, feelings of togetherness, bliss — they don’t happen just because it’s a holiday. The ordinary day is the keeper of magic. When the calendar dictates, we try to alchemize the right ingredients to create the perfect elixir, and then we are disappointed when life doesn’t work that way.

After everyone was in bed, I still selected the best pictures — the ones that showed a child in a red coat walking over the moss-covered floor of the forest, or all the kids huddled together on a rock with the Appalachian valley cascading below them — and sent them to the family. Because there was beauty. And this is what we do. And because I don’t know how to say what I really feel.