I can still remember the 70-year old lady who I had operated on for a fracture of the hip when I was working at Victoria Hospital in the late 1980s.
When I reached her bed during my ward round two days after the operation, and asked her how she was, she pulled herself up from her sitting position and, turning a tearful face towards me she said, ‘ayo docteur, faire moi bien vite, mo penan maman.’
Given her age, that means she was born around the time of the First World War, the late 1910s. And given that girls used to be married early in those days (my own dadi – paternal grandmother – was 13 years old at the time of her marriage), I suspect that this lady’s mother would have been at the very least between 85-90 years old if she had still been alive.
I did not ask her when her mother had passed, but at that age to be saying ‘mo penan maman’ only goes to show how present a mother is in the child’s being. I do not use the word ‘psyche’ deliberately. When a loved one is still living, more often than not the person is taken for granted. But when the person is gone, it is not in our psyche, an ephemeral construct, that her/his presence is felt: that person is entwined in our being in a way that can only be experienced and not described, so profound is that bond. But this is another debate. Suffice it to say that, as this lady’s emotion illustrated, Mother has an irreplaceable, everlasting presence in one’s life.
That is why, perhaps, it is “Mother’s” Day and not “Mothers’” Day, as is explained in the following lines: ‘“It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known – your mother – as a son or a daughter.” That’s why Jarvis stressed the singular “Mother’s Day,” rather than the plural “Mothers’ Day.”’
Anna Jarvis, who never had children of her own, was inspired by the 1905 death of her own mother to organize the first Mother’s Day observances in 1908. This was done on May 10, when families gathered at events in Jarvis’s hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, America, at a church now renamed the International Mother’s Day Shrine, as well as in Philadelphia and in several other cities. Largely through her efforts, Mother’s Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until US President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday – hence Mother’s Day, formally, was 100 years old this year. It is now an international day which is, however, celebrated on different days in many parts of the world, 11 May being the most common date.
Little known, however, is that the holiday has more somber beginnings in the 1850s when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis, Anna’s mother, formed Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions in order to decrease infant-mortality rate due to disease and milk contamination. The groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the US Civil War from 1861 to 1865. And God knows that they desperately needed: tender loving care. Those who have seen the massive biopic of the Civil War in the museum at Gettysburg and read chronicles of that war, including the medical and health aspects, would know how ferocious and cruel it was. It perhaps in the order of things that the movement went on to support mourning women in remembering fallen soldiers, and work for peace.
Even less known perhaps is that at the time of her death in 1948, Anna Jarvis had rejected the holiday and even lobbied for it to be removed from the American calendar – which as we now know did not happen. She was disenchanted because once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it soon turned heavily commercial and businesses encouraged people to buy flowers, cards and candy, and other items as gifts.
It was a far cry from what it had meant for her: ‘a day where you’d go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did,’ according to West Virginia Wesleyan’s Antolini, who wrote ‘Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother’s Day’ as her PhD. dissertation. Sadly, Anna Jarvis died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia in 1948 at the age of 84.
As has been observed, ‘today, of course, Mother’s Day continues to roll on as an engine of consumerism.’ Nobody can gainsay that, like so many festivals and days of commemoration, indeed Mother’s Day has assumed a commercial and consumerist dimension which seems to put somewhat in the background the main reason for the celebration. Merrymaking, eating and drinking have become a major part of the occasion, along with showering Mother – and father – with gifts.
Father’s Day began to be celebrated in the 1920s, but it is a fact that fathers score lower on the scale compared to mothers, and from the gifts point of view they are a much easier deal. Let’s accept that mothers deserve the greater share shall we, and really, fathers do not mind!
En passant, it may be noted that US President Bill Clinton in 1994 launched a gender neutral ‘Parent’s Day’ on the last Sunday in July, but it did not catch on. It is also worthy to learn that Father’s Day was the inspiration of another US citizen – Sonora Smart-Dodd, one of six children being raised by a single dad, who wanted to honour her father. There are such fathers too, single fathers who struggle as much as single mothers.
I have come across countless examples of children extremely caring and concerned about their Mother in times of the latter’s illness. I presume, rightly I hope, that it does not stop there but continues when things return to normal as well. A similar thought assails me when it comes to Mother’s Day, a hope and prayer that the exuberance and explosion of sentiment do not end abruptly at the stroke of midnight as it were, when formally Mother’s day is over and the next day children and others get back to their routine.
Of course one cannot expect that the tempo of that day will be sustained. Nevertheless, in these days of the nuclear family, with elderly parents staying separately from their children, it is easy to find excuses for not calling or visiting as regularly. Worse is of course sheer neglect of parents, or dumping them in homes. We do not need to elaborate on these painful scenarios.
One wishes that all mothers would be the same. Alas, they are not. Just two days ago I read about a woman in eastern India who had partnered with another man after her husband’s death, and whose two teenage daughters ran away to their grandparents house because the mother was forcing them to sleep with the man. The grandparents immediately lodged a police report, and the partners are now in jail.
There are such stories from all over the place, including Mauritius. That a mother should do this to her own children is to me simply unimaginable and incomprehensible. It is documented that mothers, especially in zones of conflict or war, have been forced to prostitute themselves so as to be able to feed their children, which shows to what extent they are prepared to sacrifice their dignity for the children’s sake. But inflicting sexual predation on their own progeny is, to say the least, a most un-motherly act.
But let us end on a happier note, with a few sayings about mothers:
‘All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.’
– Abraham Lincoln
‘Being a full-time mother is one of the highest-salaried jobs … since the payment is pure love.’
– Mildred B. Vermont
God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.’
– Rudyard Kipling
‘Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother.’
– Oprah Winfrey
‘Being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation.’
– Robert A. Heinlein
‘Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall; a mother’s secret hope outlives them all.’
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
‘Being a mom has made me so tired. And so happy.’
– Tina Fey
Everyday must be Mother’s Day, in spirit if not physically. When I see some people fighting with or shouting endlessly at their Mothers, I rue that they do not know what is the value of a Mother. I lost mine when I was ten years old, and to this day I tell myself, like the lady I operated on, if only she had been around…
* Published in print edition on 6 June 2014