A Chapter From The Mother Book

Mother's Day has turned into something of a joke for the sophisticated. It is a day that brings out gritty editorials and comments on "commercialism."
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Here is an excerpt from Liz Smith's The Mother Book: A Compendium of Trivia and Grandeur Concerning Mothers, Motherhood and Maternity' originally posted at wowOwow.com.

Mother's Day has long been in the top ten, third from the top, as the year's Sunday services go.
--Minister's wife

I was raised a Southern Baptist Sunday School and "stay for church" goer. So Mother's Day was of some minor moment in our house, for it broke the monotony of five Sundays a year with a little tremolo of "specialness" always so welcome to children. There was invariably a sermon on the subject of mother.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was a big favorite, as was Sarah, who had conceived at age ninety. Generally, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was handled gingerly by the fundamentalists who considered her mostly a preserve of the Catholics and thereby dangerous. A really perceptive preacher might slip in some healthy parent-child separation psychology by telling us again the important story of Jesus disappearing into the temple at age twelve to talk to the elders and how he scolded his mother when she found him, by saying: "Know ye not, I must be about my Father's business?"

The sermon was the least of it. We were usually preoccupied with pinning on and wearing our red carnations to symbolize devotion to a mother who was still alive, noting with a thrill of fear the people who wore white flowers because their mothers were dead. My brothers and I secretly wondered and whispered about how it would feel--sometime ... some horrible day, to be pinning on the white carnation? And there was always someone in our family pew wearing a white flower, for our grandparents had no living parents that we could remember.

The ritual of the flowers was a small thing; it only served to give continuity to our lives and to remind us for one day to be nicer, sweeter, more thoughtful of mother who could always shame us to tears anytime we slipped and "acted ugly."

Mother's Day has turned into something of a joke for the sophisticated. It is a day that brings out gritty editorials and comments on "commercialism." Even the traditionalists don't want to make too much of giving Mother her "day" when the times have changed so much that it seems like merely a sop and everybody knows Mother is either due 365 days as a fully recognized person, or let's just forget the whole thing, due to overemphasis.

But like millions of others, I still remark Mother's Day. I do send the "cute" cards and sometimes a plant or box of candy or a special note. I suppose it is all in the spirit with which one celebrates any occasion; like Christmas, either a glory or a horror. I must admit the material in this chapter is surprising. My researcher and I approached Mother's Day as a subject rather as if we were about to bridle a nasty horse, sidling up to it reluctantly. But it turned out to be fascinating and--nothing we expected.

Mother's Day is not for total ignoring, yet. The writer Martha Weinman Lear and I once worked together as production assistants for NBC. We were "immortalized," I as "The Brain" and Martha as "The Body," in a novel by Stanley Flink called Will They Get It in Des Moines? As years went by, Martha proved that she was not only "The Body," but "The Brain" as well.

On Mother's Day, 1975, she wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine. Response to her meditations about her ambivalent relationship with her mother elicited more mail than anything else she ever wrote. Martha received letters for months and is still introduced as "the one who wrote that Mother's Day piece."

Later Martha notes that the letters people sent for publication tended to be negative, even enraged, suggesting that no normal person would ever have such feelings about their mother. Yet the private response seemed to be saying, "I'm so relieved that I'm normal." Martha concluded: "I believe the intensity of both the rage and the relief come from the same source. You're not supposed to acknowledge the ambivalence you may feel for a parent or a child. The people who were enraged have feelings they don't dare face in themselves. These are feelings that people are terribly guilty about or terribly frightened about."

I am unable to reprint Martha's controversial article, but this is its telling opening sentence:
"Mother's Day, bittersweet."

Dear Momma, it's Mother's Day, and I'm first in line,
To tell the world "The Greatest" is grateful you're mine!
For raising and teaching, the world's prettiest son,
Between you and me, you're Number One!
--Mother's Day poem written by Muhammad Ali for the Ladies' Home Journal, 1977

by Oscar Schisgall

One day in 1925 a tall, energetic, determined-looking woman walked into a Philadelphia hotel and marched up to a group of War Mothers, who were holding a convention. In loud tones she harangued the group, denouncing them for selling Mother's Day white carnations at a profit. Several people tried to calm her, but she was too angry to be stopped. Finally, a policeman was called, and the irate woman was arrested for disturbing the peace. Thus ended one more incident in the stormy career of Miss Anna Jarvis, who was the prime mover in establishing Mother's Day.

When Miss Jarvis was released by an embarrassed magistrate, a reporter went to see her at her home on North Twelfth Street in Philadelphia. Miss Jarvis, a handsome gray-haired woman of sixty, sat in a straight-backed chair, facing a portrait of her mother.

"Miss Jarvis," he asked, "why can't you stop fighting the world? You ought to be proud that you're the founder of Mother's Day."

"They're commercializing it," she answered. "Did you read what I wrote President Coolidge?"

He nodded. The letter had been in the newspapers. She had said, "I'm trying in every way possible to prevent Mother's Day from being desecrated by the greed of individuals and organizations who see in it only a way to make money."

"But, Miss Jarvis," the reporter argued, "nobody is profiting from Mother's Day in any unethical way. After all, it was you who spent years urging that the white carnation be made the emblem of Mother's Day. It was you who urged people to send messages of love by card or telegram to their mothers."

"In other words," Miss Jarvis said, "you're telling me that my success is also my defeat. Well, you're right, young man. That happens to be the paradox of my life."

It was not the only paradox in Anna Jarvis's life. Though she was an extremely attractive woman, she never married. In Grafton, West Virginia, where she was born in 1864, she had grown into a tall, red-haired beauty. Why did such a girl remain single?

"She had a disastrous love affair when she was young," a friend of the family said. "It left her shocked and disillusioned, and thereafter she turned her back on all men."

When she left Mary Baldwin College in 1883 she threw herself into teaching school in Grafton. Not that she needed the salary. Her widowed mother was well-to-do. A few years later Anna, her mother, and Anna's blind younger sister, Elsinore, moved to Philadelphia. Anna took a job as assistant in the advertising department of an insurance company. Through her twenties and thirties, that was her life. Then in 1905, her mother died. It was a blow, of course, but it marked the beginning of a vital new era for Anna Jarvis.

She was forty-one, mistress of a fine home, guardian of her blind sister and chief beneficiary of her mother's estate. During the period of mourning, she conceived her vision: the establishment of a Mother's Day for everybody.

She suggested her idea to Mayor Reyburn of Philadelphia. That was the beginning of Anna Jarvis's crusade in which she insisted that deference be paid to living mothers, as well as to those who had died. From her home she conducted one of the strangest and most effective letter-writing campaigns in history. She wrote to governors, congressmen, clergymen, industrialists, women's clubs--to anybody who could wield influence. The mail that came in answer to these letters was so overwhelming--and demanded so much additional correspondence--that Anna gave up her job to devote herself wholly to her campaign.

When she found that her house was too small to serve as an office, she bought the house next store. Soon she was invited to visit other cities to speak before various organizations. She wrote and printed booklets about her plan, distributing them free. All these activities ate deeply into her inheritance, but Anna never allowed this to bother her.

These were the days when other militant women were fighting for suffrage. Anna Jarvis's aims were more sentimental, less controversial. How could a legislator fight anything as sweet and pure and idealistic as a Mother's Day? West Virginia was the first state officially to adopt the holiday; then Pennsylvania and others joined the march.

Anna Jarvis, inspired by these first triumphs, continued to write, travel, and speak. In 1914, her eloquence persuaded Representative J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama and Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas to present a joint resolution for the nationwide observance of Mother's Day. The resolution was passed by both houses of Congress.

Anna's real hour of glory came when President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation which urged that the second Sunday in May (the anniversary of her mother's death) be observed as Mother's Day. For Anna this triumph was not enough. There was still the rest of the world to conquer. So the writing, the speechmaking, the exhorting booklets continued, on an international scale. She was remarkably successful. In the course of her life forty-three other countries adopted Mother's Day.

Unfortunately, the triumph was mixed with frustration. "They're commercializing my Mother's Day," she was presently writing in despair to hundreds of newspapers. "This is not what I intended. I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not of profit."

For some reason she regarded florists as her principal "enemies." Not that she didn't despise manufacturers of greeting cards and candy, and everybody else who made money off her Day. But the florists represented something special; they were profiting from her mother's favorite flower, the white carnation.

Officials of the florists' organization came to her. "We didn't start this, Miss Jarvis," they explained. "But now we can't stop it, and we can't help profiting by it. People demand flowers."

By now the money Anna had inherited was gone. Suddenly, she locked herself up in the North Twelfth Street house, alone with her sister, and refused to receive anybody. For years she kept the world out of her life. She died in 1948 in the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

One Mother's Day before she died a reporter, pretending he was delivering a package, managed to see her. "She told me, with terrible bitterness, that she was sorry she had started Mother's Day."
--from Reader's Digest


Jean Bokassa, president of the Central African Republic, is another one of those daring and innovative Third World leaders. To honor Mother's Day this year, Bokassa ordered all the rapists, child molesters, and mother killers taken out of the country's jails, brought to the C.A.R capital of Bangul, and beaten to death in the market square. And we'll bet you just sent flowers.
--Oui, 1974


Orgiastic excesses characterized what might be considered "the original Mother's Day," a Roman holiday known as the Hilaria and celebrated for three days after the Ides of March. Inaugurated in Rome in the third century B.C., the Hilaria was dedicated to a pagan goddess named Cybele, sometimes called "The Great Mother of the Gods," sometimes as "the all-Begetter, the all-Nourisher" and sometimes merely as "Mother of Nature." This revel bore little resemblance to our own gentle annual salute to Mom. Cybele was associated with drums, cymbals, flutes, and horns; thus her holidays were first and foremost loud. And since she was also thought to symbolize the powers of reproduction and fruitfulness in man, plants, and animals, the Roman's Hilaria was typified more by carnality than carnations.

Closer to our sort of Mother's Day was the English tradition known as "Mothering Sunday," observed on the fourth Sunday of Lent in the seventeenth century. Sons and daughters who had apprenticed themselves or taken jobs as servants made a point of returning home on this day, bringing with them small gifts or a "mothering cake" for Mum. The pastry, also called simnel cake, was a rich fruit cake, remembered by Robert Herrick in the lines:

I'll to thee a Simnell bring,
'Gainst thou go'st a-mothering,
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give me.

Nowadays, of course, Mother's Day is big, big business--a time of rejoicing for greeting card manufacturers, florists, candy makers, Ma Bell, and Western Union, not to mention stores and restaurants featuring Mother's Day specials.

According to the Hallmark Card people, Mother's Day ranks fourth as a card-sending occasion--behind Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter, but ahead of Father's Day and Halloween. On an average first week in May, postmen slip more than 105 million cards into the mailboxes of American moms. The messages, says Hallmark editor Alan Doan, are often much longer than those of other cardtypes. "While most cards today have short sentiments, longer traditional verse is popular on Mother's Day--sometimes as long as two dozen lines." Concludes Doan: "People seem to want to send Mom as much love as possible."

The little Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, because of its early adoption of Anna Jarvis's concept, is now the recognized "Mother Church" of Mother's Day. On sale at this official Mother's Day Shrine, Inc. (its official name), are brass plaques which can be engraved with a mother's name and birth and death dates and will be permanently displayed on a bronze tablet in the church. Prices range from fifty dollars to one thousand dollars.

Mother's Day is a day of gladness to most mothers. But not for all. I should know. For weeks following Mother's Day, my desk is covered with the tear-stained letters of mothers who have been snubbed, slighted or forgotten.
--Abigail Van Buren in her "Dear Abby" column

Aldous Huxley defined the Mother's Day card as "Greetings with poems printed in imitation handwriting, so that if Mom were in her second childhood she might be duped into believing that the sentiment was not a reach-me-down, but custom-made, a lyrical outpouring from the sender's overflowing heart."


No man would dare say a bad word against Mother's Day in public, or a good word for it in private.
--Alistair Cooke


Americans devote one day of the year to mothers, and an entire week to pickles.

Go To Homepage