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Jenifer’s Shelter Island Journal: The Mother Lode

Today is Mother’s Day. 

For an observance that’s been traditionally sweet and sentimental, recently it seems more like a loaded issue. Some people maintain that Mother’s Day, like Valentine’s Day, is just a gimmick that benefits the flower and greeting card industries.

Ironically, the founder of the day, Anna Maria Jarvis, would eventually take that same view. Personally, I find that opinion not a little Scrooge-esque but, if it is a gimmick, it’s a pretty benign one, given other commercial gimmicks that have been considerably less so, like Marlboro coupons and Miss Budweiser contests.

Not to mention that I know very few people, myself included, who haven’t been lucky enough to have a mother worth celebrating, alive or dead, and appreciate having as many ways as possible to express that to her.

Turns out that Anna Jarvis felt exactly that same way when, according to Wikipedia, she “established … the first official Mother’s Day celebrated at the Andrews Episcopal Methodist Church in Grafton, W. Va. on May 10, 1908 … in order to recognize mothers, motherhood and maternal bonds in general, as well as their positive contributions to their families and society.”

How many millions of us would say yes to that sentiment — I mean people from ballerinas to bikers, sailors to senators, have “Mother” tattooed somewhere on their hide in homage to that special woman.

Anna’s mother and inspiration, Ann Jarvis, a social activist and community organizer during the Civil War, “bore between 11 and 13 children over the course of seventeen years. Of these children, only four survived to adulthood,” Wikipedia continues. “The others died of diseases such as measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria, epidemics of which were common in Appalachian communities in Taylor County. These losses inspired Jarvis to take action to help her community combat childhood diseases and unsanitary conditions … she was a dynamic woman who saw needs in her community and found ways to meet them. In 1858, while pregnant with her sixth child, Jarvis began Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in the towns of Grafton, Pruntytown, Philippi, Fetterman, and Webster to improve health and sanitary conditions. She and other area women joined a growing public health movement in the United States. Jarvis’ clubs sought to provide assistance and education to families in order to reduce disease and infant mortality. These clubs raised money to buy medicine and to hire women to work in families where the mother suffered from tuberculosis or other health problems. They developed programs to inspect milk long before there were state requirements. Club members visited households to educate mothers and families about improving sanitation and overall health.”

Jarvis was a redoubtable woman indeed, but from time immemorial, women — sung and unsung — have always been the faithful, loving custodians of human welfare, their children’s, their nuclear and extended families, and their communities at large. In terms of their own well-being, their physical, mental and emotional health for the last several millennia, that’s been pretty much left up to women for themselves and others.

Though in many ways today’s society might well appear unrecognizable to the Jarvises, women are still attending to all the same basic duties they’ve always had, and even while technology may have made their work much easier physically, it has made parenting terrifyingly more difficult. 

I see the young mothers around me, my two daughters included, prodigies of patience, empathy, humor, protection, and affection  are often, on behalf of their children, having to fight off the incessant seduction of “devices,” helping their kids maintain their equilibrium (read: self-esteem) as well as their own on the scary rollercoaster of “social media” while still making the dentist and doctor appointments, attending the teacher conferences, the Little League games, the dance recitals, etc., all in the tireless and sacred effort to grow them into the kind of honest, loving, responsible humans this world so desperately needs. 

Oh, and all the while often working a full- or part-time job, too.   

Anne Jarvis was instrumental in President Woodrow Wilson declaring Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1914. She was gratified that the singular possessive (Mother’s) was maintained instead of the plural because she felt that it more deeply honored the singular mother in each and every family.

Lucky thing, because in this day and age while most of us are grateful every day that we were given a mother worth celebrating, mothers, plural, are, in many quarters of our country, seen very differently.

As a group we’re apparently considered ruthless, wanton, irresponsible, and untrustworthy. We must be or why would so many states in our “all humans are created equal” nation be passing draconian laws that threaten us with incarceration for seeking health care? 

Puzzling. On Mother’s Day or any day.