I read a story earlier today of someone taking an unpopular stand in favor of doing the right thing. (I don't mean to tease — I may post about this separately later. But I'm resisting the temptation to go into the details right now because I've decided to clamp down on my discursiveness in hope of occasionally actually finishing a post.) Their values, and how they expressed them, reminded me of some old-school political rhetoric — so old I learned it from my parents, who learned it when they were young, and had me when they were old. So I found myself thinking about my parents early this morning, hours before I realized today is Mothers' Day. And when I did, the circumstances of my thinking about my mother earlier immediately told me how to best honor her memory this Mothers' Day.
The founder of Mothers' Day — as must surely be the case with the founders of every American holiday not invented by Hallmark — would have little but disdain for what it has become. And my mother would totally have her back.
I'm sure some of you must be fans of Nate DeMeo. Or perhaps you remember my transcribing and posting to my LJ his mediation on the Orlando killings, A White Horse, last year. DeMeo may well be America's best non-fiction storyteller — certainly a contender. And as it happens, one of the first episodes of his The Memory Palace was about the founder of Mothers' Day.
(I will once again transcribe it for those of you who who can't abide spoken-word art. For the rest of you, skip my transcript and just listen to the original by clicking the title below. Or read along while listening. Nate DeMeo is a masterful writer, certainly. But his mastery of the storytellers' art can only be fully appreciated aurally. And this story is barely four minutes long.)
International Brotherhood of Mothers
Anna Jarvis loved her mother. And because she loved her so much, mothers around the world get flowers and cards and candy and hugs from their kids every May. Which must have Anna Jarvis spinning in her grave.
She was born in 1864 in West Virginia to a woman whose name was also Anna Jarvis. And her mother, Anna Maria to her daughters' Anne Marie, was a remarkable woman. The elder Anna was a feminist and a progressive and a bit of a socialist before any of those words meant anything. In Virginia, in the middle of the nineteenth century — back before the phrase West Virginia meant anything — she traveled throughout Appalachia, organizing women's groups: teaching them about basic health, and how to demand workers' rights — after teaching them what those rights were in the first place. During the Civil War she brought women together to tend the sick and wounded soldiers, regardless of whether they wore blue or gray. After the war, with her baby Anna in her arms, she held meetings of mothers on both sides. In these proto-group-therapy sessions — a finding-closure-through-shared-grieving kind of thing — she promoted something called Mothers' Work Day. This wasn't mother-apostrophe-s — so not your mother — but mothers' — s-apostrophe. Mothers plural. A collective of mothers.
It was a radical idea: Let's take a day — and it would be a day of demonstrations and political consciousness-raising — not of flowers or spa gift-certificates. Let's take a day and recognize that what mothers do is work. And let's organize those workers the same way that people were starting to do with mines and mills and factories.
This was the work of her life. And when she died, in 1905, her life became the work of her daughter's life. Anna Marie — the younger Jarvis — was 29 years old and single, with no child of her own1. She was devastated by her mother's death, and at her funeral she handed out hundreds of carnations: one to each of the mothers in the congregation. She picked up the torch of her own mother's cause. And wouldn't put it down for the rest of her life. She delivered speeches. She published pamphlets. She wrote to governors and newspaper editors; senators, mayors — anyone in power. All in a campaign to get the government to recognize Mothers' Day.
And she succeeded. And failed at the same time. People loved the idea of a Mothers' Day — because people loved their mothers. And importantly, people loved the story of Anna Jarvis loving her own mother. It was a national holiday by 1914. And Jarvis kept going, talking about her mother and Mothers' Day all over the world. And for people all over the world — maybe wondering why they'd grown apart from their own mothers; maybe wishing their own children would thank them once in a while — for people all over the world, Anna Jarvis became the Platonic ideal of the devoted daughter. And they wrote to her. So many wrote to her to thank her — to unload to her about their mother-child relationships — that she had to buy a second house next door in which to store her correspondence. Mothers' Day would roll around every year, and Anna Jarvis — a woman with no child of her own — would get flowers by the score. Heart-shaped boxes of candy by the carload. Which made Anna Jarvis furious.
The holiday — designed to continue her mother's lifetime of effort working toward social justice and collective action — had gone commercial. Anna had thanked her mother by devoting her life to building a kind of living memorial. And it felt like all she'd accomplished was making it easy for people to go and thank theirs with a pre-packaged sentiment in a penny greeting card.
And so she railed against it for the rest of her life. Spending all of her modest savings on campaigns against the commercialization of Mothers' Day. Filing lawsuits to stop Mothers' Day celebrations. Condemning confectioners. Fighting florists. But the candy kept coming. And the flowers didn't stop. And when she died, penniless and blind, at the state sanatorium in Pennsylvania in 1948, her room was filled with Mothers' Day cards.
My mother taught me the value of collective action --- that only by pulling together do we all make way. And she taught me that when we fail to remember we're all in the same boat is when we are swept onto the rocks.
1 Yes, I noticed the disappearing dozen years. I've confirmed the facts: Anna Marie Jarvis was born in 1864; her mother died in 1905. Beyond that, I figure my job here is to transcribe, not edit.