What a beautiful sentiment we extend to all mothers and women who take on the role of mother – adoptive mothers, foster mothers, aunts, friends, godmothers, and play mothers – all who take care of children. The holiday’s founder made it singular possessive, a greeting from a child to her own mother.
I don’t remember celebrating Mother’s Day when I was a child growing up in Tennessee. In fact, I was a child who did not fully appreciate my mother. I think I knew that she had my best interests at heart as she raised me to be a moral, hardworking, independent woman. That bit of wisdom dawned on me as I got older. I resented much of her admonition at the time.
My mother, Ophelia Jefferson Gray (1922 – 2001), came through the Great Depression of the 1930s with a fierce determination to get an education and become a school teacher. She remembered the Depression as a time of hardship and struggle. Since she lived on a family owned farm, she did not go hungry. However, there were lean years that she never forgot. Those years continued to a great extent into the 1940s during World War II when rationing was a way of life. My mother never completely overcame that mentality of lack. On the plus side, she always knew how to make do. She could make a delicious meal out of slim pickings. She could grow a garden filled with vegetables and preserve them by canning and later on freezing enough to get through the winter months. My mother made pickles out of watermelon rinds and even canned cooked chicken. She sewed clothes for herself and for me her only daughter. She went to cosmetology school and learned to hot comb/press/straighten, curl, and style hair in the fashion of Madam C. J. Walker, so that she would always have an income, even during the summer months when school was out. She lived with her parents, after separating from my dad, until she could buy property and build her own house, which she did in 1958.
My mother suffered indignity, which came with being black in America, during her youth. She taught me how to face the world with dignity and grace. She gave me a sense of value so that I would never allow myself to feel less than others. She wanted me to experience life differently than she. Nothing came easy to her. That kind of life leaves much emptiness inside that is not easily filled. Yet, she enjoyed having her own home on land that she had bought. She remained curious throughout life. She enjoyed gardening, reading, learning, and travel.
Anna Jarvis founded Mother’s Day to celebrate her own mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis for all that she had done for her children and the community. Due to a lack of sanitary conditions and childhood diseases, only four of her 11 to 13 children survived to adulthood. Mother Ann Jarvis responded to the needs of her time by becoming a social activist and community organizer. In 1858, she started Mother’s Day Work Clubs with other women to improve health and sanitation among the populace during the public health movement in the United States. Though she lived in Virginia, a southern state, she and her club members remained neutral and provided help to wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil war.
Daughter, Anna Jarvis said that a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Why not set aside one day during the year to acknowledge her. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed an official document designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. It is celebrated as a national holiday in the United States.
What would Anna think of the ways we honor our mothers today? Actually, we know. Her idea of how to honor your mother was simple; each child should write a letter or visit her own mother. To Anna, it was a time to express sentiment and appreciation. Anna wanted mothers to wear white carnations on Mother’s Day. To her, they symbolized a mother’s love. Today, people wear white carnations to honor a deceased mother and red carnations for a living mother.
Anna fought against commercializing Mother’s Day. She filed lawsuits and signed petitions to rescind the holiday because it had been misused and was far off from her intent. Anna never had children. The irony is that Anna did not want the holiday to be associated with commerce/money; yet, she spent all of her money fighting to end it. In 1948 Anna died in poverty. Anna Jarvis could not stop the momentum that the holiday had gained throughout the United States. When an idea becomes zeitgeist, it takes on a life of its own. Mother’s Day has continued to become more commercial as Americans have become more prosperous and materialistic. Each individual must choose how to honor his own and her own mother on Mother’s Day and every day.
In honor of my mother, Ophelia Jefferson Gray (1922-2001), Educator
Happy Mother’s Day!