FOR the past century, Americans have set aside the second Sunday in May to honor their mothers. The first observance was organized in 1908 by Anna Jarvis, who wanted to honor her own mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, in a special way.
Ann Marie was born in Culpeper on Sept. 30, 1832, but her Methodist minister father, Rev. Josiah Reeves, moved the family to present-day West Virginia when she was still a child. She later married a successful merchant there and bore 12 children, including Anna, of which only four survived until adulthood.
During the Civil War, Ann Marie organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs that tended to wounded soldiers from both sides of the bloody conflict. She later turned her attention to lowering infant mortality by improving sanitary conditions for young families before her death in Philadelphia on May 9, 1905, at the age of 72.
By 1914, her daughter Anna’s efforts had spread throughout the U.S., prompting President Woodrow Wilson to officially proclaim the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
Millions of cards, flowers and boxes of candy later, we’re still marking the day to thank our mothers for lugging us around for nine long months, and then nurturing us through infancy, childhood and the inevitable teenage tempests before we were big enough to strike out on our own as adults.
It’s impossible to categorize the demographic group responsible for birthing the entire human race beyond the obvious fact that none of us would be here without them. Mothers are as diverse as their offspring, but the one thing they have in common is the fact that all mothers are life-givers. So Mother’s Day is the time to honor them for the foundational gift of life.
As any mother will tell you, enduring nine months of a pregnancy that dramatically affects her physical, emotional and spiritual equilibrium, and then giving birth to a squalling and totally dependent little person who requires around-the-clock care, is not easy. But it is one of the most profound acts of selfless love in the universe.
We owe our very existence to women who were willing to take a chance on an uncertain and unknowable future, and who nonetheless intimately shared their bodies, their hearts and their lives with us. Our mothers have truly given us the world.
For some people, the urge to make their mothers proud of them, and the corresponding fear of disappointing them, become a catalyst for great achievements in life. For others, the mother-child bond remains a lifetime source of comfort and security, even after their mothers have gone on to their eternal reward.
“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world, a mother’s love is not,” novelist James Joyce wrote. This Mother’s Day, we honor those brave, strong, beautiful women who looked this messed-up world straight in the eye and took a gamble—on hope, on the future, on us.
In her later years, Anna Jarvis became disillusioned with the rampant commercialization of the day, and spent her last years railing at those she believed were ruining it. She was even arrested trying to disrupt a Mother’s Day sale of carnations—her mother’s favorite flower. Her goal for the holiday all along, she said, was for children to spend some time with their mothers and perhaps compose a handwritten note of appreciation for all they had done for them.
That still sounds like the best way to celebrate, although a card or flowers and a nice brunch wouldn’t hurt. But what mothers really want from their children is a heartfelt acknowledgement of the many sacrifices they made on their behalf, and for their grateful offspring to simply tell them: “Thanks, mom, for everything.”