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Mommie dearest

By Terry Joseph
May 08, 2002

More so for men of average means, the trauma induced by having to select a Mother’s Day gift should not be underestimated, nor its price informed exclusively by otherwise useful tenets like: “It’s the thought that counts.”

In fact, at this time of year a large number of sons also count, computing at high speed the cost of such gifts and comparing in nanoseconds mom’s lifelong outlay with the price of floral fabric.

My late mother Geraldine annually assured her offspring that “just being there” was gift enough for her. Like the “thought” concept, such comforting words came with scary undertones, particularly when coupled with the “don’t bother about me” monologue.

Because you couldn’t always be sure with Geraldine, whose gleaming trademark smile had been known to conceal imminent blows (her serving of hot bakes and cocoa at suppertime proving equally deceptive on occasion), it was prudent to take precisely the opposite line.

At least once, she commented disapprovingly on the commercialisation of Mother’s Day. However, upon hearing a neighbour’s lament about some cheap trinket proffered by the latter’s frugal son, Geraldine remarked: “If it’s just the thought that counts, he could at least have spent a little more time in the contemplation.”

What price then this Mother’s Day gift? How does one ammortise decades of maternal care and come up with irreproachable annual deposits to cover such dedication to the furtherance of mankind? Where’s the help-desk? Is it at your neighbourhood department store?

During what soon became a month-long run-up to Mother’s Day, businessmen offer great deals to guilt-ridden siblings, promising swift solutions to the perennial problem. Pay nothing down and walk out of the store with a single item guaranteed to reflect lifelong appreciation.

Concerns about the cost of this particular form of expiation are not new.

Interestingly, Anna-Maria Reeves-Jarvis, the retired Philadelphian schoolteacher credited with the effort to have Mother’s Day institutionalised across the US, was the first person to complain publicly about its subsequent commercialisation.

What started as an ancient religious observance, survived the crossing from paganism to Christianity and grew into a tribute to world peace, later evolved into open warfare; a battle that eventually cost Ms Reeves-Jarvis her sanity and her very life.

One theory traces origins of the celebration to ancient Greece, in honour of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods. The more popular version locates its genesis in the 17th Century English observance of Mothering Sunday, then a Lenten celebration.

During that period poor servants worked many leagues from home and consequently lived on their employers’ premises. On Mothering Sunday, the servants were given the day off and encouraged to go spend the day with their mothers.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe the celebration was varied somewhat to embrace the church as “spiritual mother”, the entity that gave life and provided protection from harm. Over time, the church festival blended seamlessly with the Mothering Sunday celebration.

The American version was first suggested in 1872 as a day dedicated to peace by Julia Ward Howe (who wrote the words to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

Mrs Howe convened annual Mother’s Day meetings in Boston to further this most noble cause and achieved widespread recognition.

In 1907, Ms Reese-Jarvis began a campaign to establish a national Mother’s Day, first persuading her church in Grafton, West Virginia to celebrate the event on the second Sunday in May, the anniversary of her mother’s death.

She then set about developing a powerful lobby in the quest to spread the observance nationwide.

The effort quickly gained support and in 1911, for the first time, Mother’s Day was celebrated across the US. Three years later, President Woodrow Wilson made the official announcement proclaiming Mother’s Day as a national event, to be observed annually on the 2nd Sunday of May.

But the Reese-Jarvis triumph was short-lived. By 1920, after witnessing the corruption of her concept by American merchants, she grew bitter enough to begin another campaign, this one aimed at stemming wanton commercialism of the observance.

In 1923, Ms Reese-Jarvis filed a lawsuit against two businessmen who, she felt, were vulgarly capitalising on Mother’s Day and launched a placard and pamphlet protest. Instead of having the matter properly aired, she was arrested for disturbing the peace.

It was the beginning of a pitiful decline for Ms Reese-Jarvis, who ended up losing all her friends and possessions in a relentless legal fight to correct a concept gone wrong. She died in 1948, a lonely patient at a Philadelphia asylum, but not before telling a reporter how sorry she was for having started Mother’s Day.

Clearly, her objection to the commercialisation of Mother’s Day was drowned out by the din of cash registers ringing up sales, tabulating the take and proving beyond doubt not only “the thought” is available for counting.

Ironically, quality-time, perhaps your dearest possession, may be all mother really needs.

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Copyright © 2002 Terry Joseph