The Second Sunday of Every May

Anna Jarvis

From Morgantown US-119 winds south through the mountains, valleys, and "hollers" of West Virginia. After about 25 miles of curves and hairpin turns, just as the nausea is about to become overwhelming, there's a stoplight...and a McDonald's, followed by a series of several stoplights. It's enough to make you believe the promise of urbanization lies within reach, but as you pass through Grafton, West Virginia you realize it is a place that time has mostly forgotten. The town remains much the way it was in the '70's besides the fact that most of the people are gone, having moved north to places like Wheeling or Canton, maybe even Pittsburgh. Nonetheless route 119 continues undaunted, proceeding boldly over the tracks and out the other end of town several more miles through a small hamlet known as Webster.

Though once a whistle stop on the B&O the trains no longer stop in Webster. In fact now it's barely worth a whistle. The rail line, presently dedicated to lumbering freights pulling coal from the mountains to the coast, runs along the western side of the highway. On the east is a tiny cluster of modest homes including one that remains very much the way it appeared in the '70's...the 1870's. No one lives there any longer, but it was once the home of Anna Jarvis.

Anna was born in May of 1864 on the tail end of the American Civil War. She was number ten in a line of thirteen children, seven of which had died prior to her birth in what by local standards is a large wood frame house barely 20 yards off the main thoroughfare. Perhaps the unfortunate survival rate of her siblings had something to do with Anna's family moving up the pike to more established Grafton several years later. Anna dutifully attended Sunday school at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church on Main Street (now US-119) under the tutelage of her mother Ann. Apparently it was during the course of one of those Sunday school lessons that Ann first spoke wistfully of the idea of a day to commemorate the service of mothers to society.

No doubt Anna must have been an attentive student. As most children do she grew up and began charting her own course. Her first stop after Grafton was Staunton, Virginia where she studied for two years at an institution now known as Mary Baldwin College. Following that she took a job as a bank teller in Chattanooga for one year before heading north of the Mason-Dixon line and landing in Philadelphia. Despite all her moves she continued faithfully corresponding with Mom. Anna's father died in 1902 and two years later Ann reluctantly moved from Grafton to Philly in order to be reunited with her daughter. She died a year later on May 9, 1905, but Anna remembered well her lessons from years earlier.

Three years after her mother's death Anna organized a memorial service to be held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church to honor her and all mothers. Anna herself did not attend, but remained in Philadelphia where apparently she delivered a moving speech on the floor of John Wanamaker's department store. It was May 10, 1908 and Mother's Day was born. It, like Anna had years before, quickly took on a life of its own. The rapid commercialization of the annual event got on Anna Jarvis' nerves, leading her to express her displeasure. Apparently she is remembered to have said, "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world." Anna never benefited from the profits her commemorative invention would eventually generate for others. She died in 1948 having never married or had any children herself. 

On May 13, 2007, Mother's Day, my wife for all intents and purposes though not officially became a mother. I was on my third trip to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hanging drywall. There was a phone call that Friday followed by a flurry of phone calls, then twelve hours later she was on a flight to meet a baby girl with no name. The next day, Mother's Day, she assumed temporary custody until the adoption was final. Two weeks later I joined them. Suddenly we were a family slumming off my sister-in-law on the opposite end of the country for the better part of a month.

Just a few days ago, on Mother's Day, we celebrated our daughter's seventh birthday. After seven years observing my wife as a mom I think I may have finally come to some slight understanding of the grief that I put my own mother through, not the least of which was in 1998 when I led her on a long drive west from Mountville, Pennsylvania. Eventually we went down US-119 in West Virginia, past Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church and the birthplace of Anna Jarvis, even deeper into the backwoods of Appalachia. There in front of a ramshackle, insect infested trailer with odorous tap water she and Dad left me, my pickup truck, and a dog to begin figuring out our own way in the world. What was to follow was the most difficult six months of my life. She was so upset by the conditions of the place and it's surroundings. It was the only time to that point that I had ever seen her cry.

Of course last week I sent her a printed card...that my wife had picked up at the store.

In my defense I also called. In any case I'm sure I fell well short of the expectations Anna Jarvis had in mind when she organized the inaugural Mother's Day. Nonetheless my mom is pretty gracious. She has been putting up with my antics for quite some time now, becoming accustomed to some of them. On her last visit I even took to criticizing her reading choice based on the lame theology it represented. I told her that even if she does read The Shack I still love her (just remember it's not an accurate explanation of the Trinity!). More remarkably, she still loves me...mostly I'm convinced because my wife and my kids are so cool. But I'll still take it. In any case if it's true that "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Prov. 31:30) then Mom is due a lot more than just a printed card and a phone call or even the second Sunday of every May.