I was picking up a few things at the supermarket recently when I noticed a traffic jam of humanity clogging the greeting card aisle. I kept moving, making my way to the dairy case, then circled back around, sort of the way you feel when you drive by the scene of an accident, just to look.
It’s been 11 years since I’ve had to select a Hallmark that put my feelings about my mother into words – words that never quite fit.
Frankly, it’s been a relief.
Although I do miss my mom, I don’t miss shopping for the right Mother’s Day gift because, truth be told, there is no right gift to give your mom on Mother’s Day. At least, not one that money can buy.
I know this because I’ve been on the receiving end of this annual holiday for most of my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ungrateful for the eclectic collection of Mother’s Day swag I’ve accumulated over the past 38 years from my beloved brood, an embarrassment of riches when you do the Mother’s Day math: four great kids times all these years in the trenches.
But I’ve never understood why I feel unworthy of all the attention.
In researching the origins of Mother’s Day, I fully expected to confirm my suspicion that it was nothing more than a holiday manufactured by a greeting card company.
What I learned is, like most holidays, Mother’s Day is a collective historical hash with three key founders, including Julia Ward Howe, a social activist who tried to harness the power of moms to end war, and Frank Hering, a prominent Notre Dame football coach who had his players write penny postcards of appreciation to their moms as a way of building character.
But what put Mother’s Day on the U.S. calendar in 1914 was a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson, who by an act of Congress made the second Sunday in May a national holiday reserved for public expressions of love and reverence for our collective moms.
It wasn’t his idea.
Wilson was prompted in particular by the efforts of Anna Jarvis, who in 1908 organized the first actual Mother’s Day celebration in West Virginia, a memorial service to honor her own late, great mom, Ann Jarvis.
Of all the lore, I was particularly moved by how things went for Anna Jarvis after Mother’s Day became a national holiday. Her victory was fleeting, as she spent the rest of her life trying to stop what she’d started, dismayed that a day of quiet appreciation was hijacked and commercialized by retailers and greeting card companies.
I get that.
Her mom was a Virginian, born and raised in Appalachia during the 1800s. She married a preacher man, and over the course of 17 years gave birth to a baker’s dozen of babies at a time when childhood diseases were as common as they were deadly. Only four of her children survived.
Ann Jarvis turned her grief into action, going out into her community to educate other mothers on how to protect their babies from preventable diseases related to poverty and germs. She became a strong advocate for improved health care.
Then, when Ann Jarvis saw her home state splintered by Civil War, she again sought to bring healing where there was suffering by organizing Mothers Work Clubs to assist and care for sick and wounded soldiers, regardless of which side they were fighting for.
She believed the losses of war were felt by all mothers, and boldly stood alone in offering a public prayer for the first Confederate killed by a Union soldier, when no one else would.
Soon, other mothers joined her in her efforts. After the war, Ann Jarvis organized a Mothers Friendship Day in her community, to reunite families from both sides for a time of healing and reconciliation.
As her children grew older, Ann Jarvis continued to lead by example, speaking out about the importance of public health and the need for organized and supervised recreation for children.
It was for all these reasons, and more, that Anna Jarvis was moved to honor her mom. Along with Howe and Hering, Anna Jarvis believed that mothers universally deserve credit and recognition for all they do.
Beyond the personal sacrifice motherhood requires, they recognized that moms are the voice of humanity and civility in a world where devastation from war and disease causes so much heartbreak.
Which brings me back to this day.
I recall as a little kid looking forward to creating some kind of card or gift for my mom. As I got older and my relationship with my mom got complicated, I mostly found myself buckling under the weight of holiday obligation, bringing pansies to plant in her garden, or a new pair of her favorite Dearfoam slippers to ease her achy feet.
I’m sure she appreciated all my efforts, great and small.
My mom married later in life, after a career in social work. She was well-educated and excited to start a family in her late 30s. I am not sure if motherhood, for her, was all she hoped it would be. But she devoted herself to my sister and me, giving up her professional life and settling into suburbia.
Over the years, we had our differences.
But in the end, when you no longer have to shop for Mother’s Day, you realize that what matters most is accepting your mom for who she was and what she tried to do.
If I had one more chance, I’d put my feelings into these words and deliver them to my mom, with a hug:
Thank you for everything you did for me. I know from experience that motherhood begins and ends with self-doubt, the bookends to a lifetime of good intentions and battles of the heart, fought with courage and unconditional love.
For better and for worse, my own imperfect heart beats on – without you. Don’t worry; you got it as right as any mother could.
In your lifetime I hope I told you that, if not in so many words.
There is no way to describe how it feels here on the other side of wherever you are. What I wouldn’t give to sit with you for one more hour, to hear your voice again, or just to hold your hand. I carry your voice in my heart, from where it still guides me. In my heart, I still feel the warmth of your hand; in my heart, I’ve never let go. Happy Mother’s Day.
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