How Mother Got Her Day


Alone among our national holidays, Mother’s Day commemorates a death. Thanks to the tireless, even obsessive, labors of Anna Jarvis of West Virginia, we honor all our mothers on the second Sunday in May, the anniversary of her own mother’s death in 1905.

Anna’s morbid obsession is not surprising; death and sorrow tragically affected her relationship with her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, right from the start. The eighth of eleven children, she was named for a sister who had died before her birth. Only three of her siblings reached adulthood: Josiah, Claude, and Elsinore, known as Lillie, whom scarlet fever left all but blind.

As the only physically sound daughter of five, Anna became distinctly special in her mother’s eyes. A friend wrote that the two of them grew to love “each other with a love which was more than love.”

Anna felt differently toward her father, Granville, who ran a hotel and sold feed in the small town of Graf ton. He had, she recalled, “a quick natural temper, and he never overcame it, but he ruled it.” She and Granville exchanged some tart letters over the years. She remembered him to be “selfreliant but not self-assertive, modest, natural, reserved—always quiet and retiring.” “My father,” (Anna always capitalized “mother” but never “father”) she noted, “was 10 years my Mother’s senior, and the difference in years was most marked throughout their married life over 52 years.”

Mrs. Jarvis was as outgoing as Granville was reserved. Perhaps in compensation for her own losses, she became a “mother” to the communities in which she lived. Before the Civil War, she organized local women to fight the epidemic diseases that had stricken some of her children. Later, she convened a “Mother’s Friendship Day” social gathering at which she advocated the power of motherhood to heal the war’s wounds and to reduce the Union-Confederate rivalries that many West Virginia mountaineers still harbored during Reconstruction.

As a Sunday-school teacher and as head of the Andrews Methodist Church infant department in Grafton, West Virginia, Mrs. Jarvis lectured adults and children on “Great Mothers of the World.” She seemed saintly and “Christian” to the townspeople. “I am afraid,” wrote a friend after her death, “that none of us will ever be as good as she was.”

Anna knew her better, however, knew that her mother’s public service, in part at least, masked an attempt to “hide her great suffering and fears.” Anna described her mother as “highly nervous” and her mother’s life as one of “care, anxiety, illness, sorrow, and self-sacrifice.” Her mother, wrote Anna, “never ceased to grieve” over the deaths of her own brother and parents, and, though she loved her mother deeply, Anna must also have resented being trapped in her web of grief. A worrier like her mother, Anna did not develop her mother’s graciousness, but she matured to be a tall, attractive, red-haired woman. She graduated from the Grafton public schools in 1881 and “finished” at Augusta Female Academy in Staunton, Virginia, some 150 miles away. After two years of English, mental and moral philosophy, Latin, German, and math, Anna, now nineteen, returned home to teach school.

Like her mother, Anna conducted Sunday school; she also played the organ at services. An acquaintance wrote that those who knew her gave “testimony to her high character and noble qualities of head and heart.” Anna was, he noted, “earnest, conscientious, attentive, and faithful in the discharge of duty.” Her modesty, he concluded, “is equaled only by her merit.”


Anna’s brothers struck out on their own, but she stayed home with her parents. They lived well enough until 1887, when a huge fire burned nearly all Grafton’s commercial buildings. Thereafter, Granville’s fortunes declined.

When Anna was twenty-seven, her uncle, Dr. James E. Reeves, urged her to come to work as a secretary or bank clerk in Chattanooga. His town, he boasted, was “more than ten times the size of Grafton” and would give her a chance to begin a “new life—one worth living.”

Anna’s mother balked. James pleaded with his sister that Anna would “find her proper and high level, and will at once strike 50 years ahead of Grafton.” But mother tearfully resisted losing Anna. James responded: ”… please dry up ; and send your child off on her triumphal march with gladness—not in sorrow and tears.” Anna stayed home with mother.

The next year, however, Anna was permitted to join her brother Claude, a successful businessman in Philadelphia. Although expecting “to return home at any time,” she secured a position as a writer in the advertising department of Philadelphia’s Fidelity Mutual Life Association. Her brother’s connections and wealth gave her an entrée into Philadelphia society.