“How is your new life treating you? Are you eating well?” the card read, signed: “Mom.” I felt warm for a moment, appreciating that unique blend of love and annoyance you feel when your mother asks about your food habits. But that warmth was soon followed by unease. You see, the card was a digital one on the screen of my Nintendo Switch, and my mother had been dead for over a year.
This was the first, but not the last, letter from “Mom” I would receive addressed to my character in Animal Crossing. For those not yet in debt to Tom Nook, Animal Crossing is a relaxing game in which you and a crew of cute cartoon animals live together in harmony on a deserted island. You can go fishing, grow fruit, craft items, and earn bells. You can customize your character to look like you and have your name, but otherwise the real world is far removed.
So I was caught off-guard the first time I opened up my in-game mailbox to find a letter from “Mom” among the notes from animals who populate my island. Since we never meet the Mom character in Animal Crossing, we’re left to imagine her ourselves. My mind fills in the blanks with my own mother’s face.
Animal Crossing is an escape, a day trip into an island where the worst that can happen is getting stung by a bee. Letters from Animal Crossing Mom break through the illusion and remind me of my very real grief.
My mom died in 2019, fourteen months after her diagnosis with Stage IV lung cancer. The last birthday card I got from her is one of those flowery Hallmark cards with a poem about daughters. She signed it simply, “love, Mom.” On my birthday this year, “Mom” sent me a letter in Animal Crossing. It read, “you’ll always be my baby.” Attached was a birthday cake, which I placed on the kitchen table in my on-screen house.
When I was little, my mom used to make elaborately decorated birthday cakes, like a replica of my favorite stuffed animal Ballerina Bear. I teared up, overwhelmed, opening my gift from Animal Crossing Mom, knowing I won’t ever get a real card or cake from my mother again. At the same time, it was a strange comfort. It felt good to pretend, for a moment, that my mom could send me a message from the beyond.
I’m not the only one navigating this strange experience. I asked a few other Animal Crossing players and members of the Dead Moms Club how they see the letters. Tyler Feder, author of Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir, generally feels annoyed at Nintendo’s choice not to give “Mom” a unique name. She finds other ways to connect with the memory of her mother within the game, creating an enchanted peach tree grove as a memorial on her island. I find myself doing the same as I decorate the attic of my Animal Crossing house with a sewing machine and ironing board, recreating my mom’s happy place: her craft room.
Since we never meet the Mom character in Animal Crossing, we’re left to imagine her ourselves. My mind fills in the blanks with my own mother’s face.
Another player, Laura, was briefly comforted by an eerily timed letter: after nightmares about her mother’s death, Animal Crossing Mom sent Laura a note that said, “As if in a dream, I saw your home and how you’re living. But I couldn’t see you. How bittersweet.” Now, the letters just make Laura sad: “I’ve got a fictional world and a real world where I know my mom loves/ed me, but I can’t communicate back.” Like Laura, the letters give a sense that my mother is just within reach, but I can’t actually touch her.
But even when it hurts, I find that I appreciate these notes from my Animal Crossing Mom. As more time passes since her death, my grief feels duller, more hazy. In the first months after she died, I couldn’t look around my house without crying, touching the quilts she made or the ladle she passive-agressively sent after complaining that the second-hand one in my kitchen wasn’t nice enough (whatever it means for a ladle to be “nice enough”). Now, it’s harder to call my mom to mind in detail. It’s almost its own kind of loss to move on from those initial stages of grief where memories are sharp and clear. As I heal, I worry that I will forget what it felt like to be near my mom, to hear her laugh, to talk to her.
When the letters appear, I’m prompted to compare the wording and the stationary to the real cards she sent me, bringing the image of her handwriting and her humor into sharp relief. In those moments, the fog clears and I feel close to her. I wasn’t expecting to find my mom on my Animal Crossing island getaway, but I’m glad she’s here.
Alex Shevrin Venet is an educator and author of Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (W.W. Norton, 2021). Connect on Twitter at @AlexSVenet.