How Mother Got Her Day

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“Investigate for yourself,” she wrote in an apparently unmailed letter to the Detroit Free Press in 1932, “the annual rake off of Hering and his woman operator [Margaret McClure, Fraternal Order of Eagles historian] and their side, and you may understand why Hering wants to be a Mother’s Day ‘pa.’ … It is not any light thing for a person or publication to attack a woman of gentility and sincerity in a damaging way, and exploit some man (entire stranger) as the originator and responsible person for an achievement that has been this woman’s life work of time, thought, expenditure, and achievement.”

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a new Mother’s Day proclamation reasserting the principles in President Wilson’s original document but noting as well that because of the Great Depression there “are throughout our land today an unprecedentedly large number of mothers and dependent children who … are lacking many of the necessities of life.” Anna exploded. “There is ONE DAY in the year we do not talk POOR MOTHERS and ask charity for them,” she said. “Your mother can never be poor with your love.”

In 1934 Postmaster James A. Farley planned to issue a three-cent Mother’s Day stamp reproducing Whistler’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother . Anna asked for an audience “at the White House (preferably Thursday, 22d [February], as I shall be in Washington then) for a better understanding re Mother’s Day celebration, and the proposed stamp for it.” Anna believed the stamp idea came from Hering and the American War Mothers. “This stamp,” she alleged, “is one of the cleverest tricks that any women surely ever put over on a President so gracious as to see them.” The Post Office removed the words “Mother’s Day” from the stamp and added a vase of carnations to the painting.

Four years later, Anna suggested to President Roosevelt that Mother’s Day be built around the theme of “Making Mother’s Day Safe for Mother in 1938.” She sent him an article she had written condemning the national accident rate. All American accidents, she reasoned, “either involved a mother herself or someone dear to her, and brought her heartache and sorrow.” She suggested that a campaign be launched “making repairs [which] will give needed employment to many persons out of work. …” Everyone should, she pleaded, call attention to the “uselessness of the loss of life” and proclaim the message of “live and let live.”

Anna dissipated Claude’s huge estate during the Great Depression. Living alone with Lillie, now failing and increasingly paranoid, Anna became a pathetic figure. By the late 1930’s, she only occasionally sallied forth on the streets of Philadelphia, clutching a satchel of press releases and pictures of herself taken just after her mother’s death. Mostly she stayed home behind the drawn curtains at 2031 North Twelfth. She hung the sign “Warning, Stay Away” in her window; got an unlisted telephone; installed a Philadelphia “busybody,” a third-story projecting mirror that allowed her to see who was at the door without opening it. Her maid was instructed to open the door only at the sound of a certain knock.

The once-elegant house with its marble foyer, Victorian bric-a-brac, stained glass, mahogany fireplaces, and copperroofed conservatory had become a dilapidated fortress. The neighborhood deteriorated, too. A barber nearby posted a sign: “Get a shave and take a clean mug home to mother.”

Her press releases became more and more strident. “ WHAT WILL YOU DO? ” one asked. “How will you help us to maintain Mother’s Day sacred basic standards, and to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations?” “Like Mother herself,” she wrote, “its founder and co-workers have scrimped along without working funds and under crushing handicaps. …” Others, who “would take the coppers off a dead mother’s eyes,” have “feasted on our cause. … Can their persecution, prosecution, shredding (of) our cherished work, be longer endured?”

One Mother’s Day toward the end of her life, a reporter posing as a deliveryman won a private interview. “She told me with terrible bitterness,” he remembered, “that she was sorry she had ever started Mother’s Day.”

As Anna moved into her seventies, her vision failed steadily and she seemed to live on nervous energy alone. Her squabbles with Lillie became neighborhood gossip. Instead of accepting her blindness, Anna came to believe that she was being kept in a dark room as punishment for some crime. In 1943 friends had her placed in a sanitorium in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

A policeman found Lillie dead in the kitchen of the house the next year. Anna grieved anew at this final loss, calling “Lillie, Lillie” into the darkness. Impoverished, blind, and, finally, deranged, she died in 1948. Buried next to her mother, she never knew that some of the expenses of her last years had been paid anonymously by grateful florists.