Morris: Mothers Day

May 3, 2021

by Leo Morris

When Ann Jarvis died on May 9, 1905, her daughter, Anna Reeves Jarvis, began a campaign to honor her mother as a way of celebrating all moms as a group.

On May 12, 1907, she held a memorial service at her late mother’s church in Grafton, W. Va. Within five years, almost every state observed the day, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson made the second Sunday in May a national holiday.

But Anna became disillusioned with her creation, because what had begun as a day of sentimental tribute soon became an overly commercialized extravaganza of card sending and gift giving.

“To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure,” she said in 1920. “If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day.”

So, she spent the last years of her life trying to undo what she had created.

Alas, she failed.

Mother’s Day in America is now a $25 billion-a-year holiday, according to 2019 figures from the National Retail Federation, with $5 billion each spent on jewelry and special outings, and about $6 billion going for flowers, cards and gift certificates.

For some reason, that story tickles me no end.

Perhaps it is because you can draw whatever lesson you like from it, depending on your needs. If you seek to wallow in your insecurities, you can learn that you should be careful what you wish for. If you want to reinforce your sense of autonomy, you can learn that it’s perfectly fine to change your mind and that if you do so, no need to be shy about it.

I don’t know that my mother ever came to regret what she’d wished for, but I’m sure she had moments when she was frazzled to the limit by her decision to have children.

There was the time as a toddler when I almost set the kitchen on fire by playing with matches near the kindling box, and locked her outside. I was too young to understand what fire could do, but I knew precisely what the wrath of a mother could do. Finally persuading me to unlock the door – now, that was some fine parenting.

There was the time a few years later when my cousin Frank and I invented the concept of Frisbee with a coffee can lid, and I stood before my mother, hand to my sliced ear and blood dripping down to my elbow, crying, “It wasn’t my fault!”

There was the time in high school when, exasperated by my repeated brushing off of her commands, she said, “I’m telling you for the last time to clean your room,” and I replied, “Oh, thank, goodness, I thought you were going to go on about it all day.”

Somehow, she made it through the stage when she could only wring her hands and got to the place where she could use them to applaud at my high school graduation, to pull me into a hug when I got back from overseas during the Army, to pick up scissors and cut my articles out of the newspaper when I became a reporter.

I’m not saying my mother was a saint, exactly.

Oh, who am I kidding? Of course, she was a saint. She had to be. She raised me.

And she had to learn on the job. She married at 16, had me at 17, and never read a parenting book or how-to magazine article. She just did the best she could, based on what she learned from the way she was raised, lessons passed down, generation to generation, to her parents.

And she did it with patience, tolerance, forgiveness and a grace that comes with the territory and cannot be replaced by all the government spending in the world if it is absent.

All those qualities and more are wrapped up in the single word – “nurturing” – that we have used so easily over the years and that our cultural revisionists would so easily dismiss. Everyone needs someone in life to be the nurturer, and forgive my nod to tradition, but I nominate mothers. My father taught me how to be a good man. My mother taught me how to be a better person.

On further thought, I think I know what motivated Anna Reeves Jarvis.

Her mother had tried twice to get a Mother’s Day started in the mid-19th Century. One effort, spurred by own experience in losing all but four of her 13 children to the Typhoid fever that raced through Appalachia, was meant to educate women about proper hygiene. The other was to get former Union and Confederate soldiers to meet for reconciliation and was tied to Juliet Ward Howe’s unsuccessful push for an international Mother’s Peace Day.

So, Anna was trying to honor her mother by carrying on her work. She wanted to make her mother proud, and she then tried to undo her success because she thought it would not live up to her mother’s expectations.

I know what I would say to my mother if she were still here, and it’s what any mothers still living would like to hear from their children:

“You did all right by me. Thank you. I’ll always try to make you proud.”

They probably won’t even mind if it’s in one of those billions of filthy, commercialized cards. Those hordes of money schemers have mothers, too, after all.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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