May 12, 2013
I Ask My Mother to Sing
She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.
I've never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.
Today is Mother's Day. Mother's Day as we know it — where we celebrate our own mothers, with flowers, gifts, and cards — is relatively new, but annual celebrations to celebrate motherhood are an ancient practice.
The motherhood festivities have historically been in spring, the season of fertility. In ancient Egypt, there were celebrations to honor Isis, the loving mother-goddess, who is often shown in Egyptian art with the baby Horus at her breast, much like Mary and Jesus in later Christian iconography. The cult of the great mother-goddess Cybele began in Turkey and soon moved to Greece and Rome, and she was worshipped in some form for more than a thousand years. Her priestesses led wild celebrations, full of drinking, dancing, music, and all kinds of debauchery.
As the Roman Empire and Europe transitioned to Christianity, the Church set aside the fourth Sunday of Lent as a day to honor motherhood. It was a day to celebrate the Virgin Mary, and for people to honor their "mother church."
In the 1600s, England declared an official Mothering Day for that fourth Sunday of Lent. It was a time when families were encouraged to get together, and servants or workers were allowed one day off work to go see their mothers, since many working-class families in England worked as servants on separate estates and rarely got to see each other. Mothering Day was also declared an exception to the fasting and penance of Lent, so that families could have a feast together.
When the pilgrims came to America, they stopped celebrating Mothering Day, just as they stopped celebrating most holidays that they thought had become too secular.
Mother's Day was reintroduced to America in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, who wanted to set aside a day of protest after the Civil War, in which mothers could come together and protest their sons killing other mothers' sons.
But the woman who really created Mother's Day as we know it was Anna Jarvis. Her mother had held Mother's Friendship Days to reunite families and neighbors separated during the war, and when she died, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, worked to proclaim an official Mother's Day to honor her mother and celebrate peace. And so on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother's Day celebrations took place in Grafton, West Virginia, and at a church in Philadelphia. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother's Day.
But Mother's Day became commercialized very quickly, especially in the floral industry, and Anna Jarvis was furious. She said, "What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations?" But flower sales and card sales continued to grow, and Anna Jarvis died in poverty and without any children of her own.
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Rosellen Brown (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1939). Her novels include Tender Mercies (1978), Before and After (1992), and Half a Heart (2000). Brown is proud of the fact she sustained a writing career while bringing up two daughters, and she still relies on some of the routines she developed when her kids were small. "I start every day by reading a little something," she told TriQuarterly. "I've always done that in order to change the cadence of what I've been listening to, especially with children around. You know, you start the day saying, 'Yes, there is a matching sock somewhere,' or, you know, 'Hurry up, you'll miss the school bus.' And then I ... had to sit down and try to get into a very different place by reading something. But what that ends up doing to me within a few pages is [it] makes me terribly envious, jealous — makes me want to do it myself."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®