How Mother Got Her Day

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“This noble Mother’s face,” she went on, “was not a strange one in heaven, for there were the father and mother, the brothers and sister, the husband and seven little children, and old dear friends who were awaiting her coming with eagerness and joy. What a day of rejoicing and happy reunions it must have been. …”

Mixed in among Anna’s tributes to her mother were hints of her own feelings of guilt. She blamed herself for not allowing her mother to speak of dying and for not selecting the right doctors: had the main physician been “as thoroughly acquainted with his patient’s symptoms as the nurse had shown herself to be,” Anna wrote, her mother might have lived on. The doctor, she thought, refused to be removed “for he was determined to hold on to the case for the last dollar that was in it for him. …”

Anna seemed unable to let her mother go. In replies to condolence letters, she sent her mother’s picture. In the notes she received, she marked phrases eulogizing her mother’s “sweet spirit,” “noble Christian life,” “cheery face,” or “gentle, kindly way.” Beneath a portrait of her mother, Anna placed a bowl filled with China roses, and she put palm leaves, from the funeral, in an urn as a further memorial.

Her grief persisted. Friends wrote her not to “worry so much” over her mother’s death. “Cheer up now,” one suggested, as the first anniversary approached, and “do not look on the dark side anymore.” Another wrote, “for you who have lost so noble a Mother we have the warmest sympathy and hope that God in his good time will heal your wounds and fill you with his Peace.”

But peace would not come. Her obsessive grieving was noticed by her fellow workers; her mother’s death, an associate noted, brought a “great change in Miss Jarvis.”

In April, 1906, a cousin suggested, “Cannot you, dear Anna, take up some of your Mother’s life work, and carry it on for her? It seems to me that in that way, you might find solace and comfort, and it would please her so. … You have been blessed in having such a devoted, loving and noble Christian mother, and I feel on that account, much is expected of you. We all have our heartaches and trials, and it is best we should. Let us make them blessings.”

This suggestion apparently opened a way for Anna to try to cope with her unconscious ambivalent feelings toward her mother, which—psychiatrists tell us—often cause pathological mourning. If a bereaved person harbors unconscious anger toward the deceased, he or she may unconsciously need to continue to grieve as a punishment for having committed imaginary crimes against the dead.

Palm leaves and icons were no longer memorial enough. Anna now set out to create a grander monument. In 1907 she persuaded the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton to hold a Mother’s Day service to mark the second anniversary of her mother’s death. She anonymously donated money for a memorial picture of her mother and for a table for the Sunday school, and she provided five hundred carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—for the mothers in the Andrews congregation. At her urging several Philadelphia clergymen also preached on motherhood that Sunday in their own churches.

The following year, the Andrews Methodist Church officially proclaimed the third anniversary of Anna Reeves Jarvis’ death to be Mother’s Day. Special music and sermons in honor of mothers filled Grafton churches. Grafton florists sold out of carnations. Anna donated seven hundred blossoms to the church, but she was not present herself.

She had been busy in Philadelphia for months, organizing a Mother’s Day committee that included the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer , department store magnate John Wanamaker, Henry J. Heinz, the food manufacturer, and her brother Claude. That same afternoon, John Wanamaker opened his massive Philadelphia auditorium for a special Mother’s Day program. Anna addressed the crowd for over an hour on the glories of motherhood and proposed that Mother’s Day be celebrated universally. Wanamaker later said that he “would rather have the honor of establishing this Mother’s Day than … be the King of England.”

A friend wrote Anna that she was “not at all surprised” that Mother’s Day “met with universal approval.” “I trust,” she noted, “that you will live to see the day observed in every church and mission in America—the world will be better for it, I am sure.”

Over the coming years, Anna would write thousands of letters to public officials eliciting support. Endorsements from politicians willing to become honorary vice-presidents of the movement flooded her home at 2031 North Twelfth Street, Philadelphia. In 1910 West Virginia governor William Glasscock issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation, asking that all West Virginians “attend church on that day and wear white carnations.”