Ding! No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t take the lid off my grandma’s cookie jar without making that sound. Then her voice would shout from the other room. “Are you eating cookies again? It’s only an hour ’til dinner time!”
For years I resented that tell-tale cookie jar — and my grandma’s scrutiny, which never seemed to let up. Even after going off to college and settling down with my own family, the memory of her voice was a constant presence.
“You’re not going to waste your money on that, are you?” “Wipe your feet before you come traipsing through the house.” “Didn’t anyone teach you how to say ‘please’?”
Not until many years after my grandma had passed away did it occur to me that her prohibitions were only one side of the story. I hadn’t paused to appreciate the fact that the sugar cookies were always freshly baked for me.
I guess that’s why we need Mother’s Day. Some of us are so thick-headed, we need to be compelled into acknowledging the goodness — however imperfectly expressed — of those who raised us. The constraints on one’s freedom that are naturally resented in youth require the perspective of age to be appreciated and forgiven. Until that time, gratitude needs the encouragement of social pressure.
Mother’s Day originally was proposed by Julia Ward Howe shortly after the Civil War. But the idea didn’t really catch on until Anna Jarvis launched a zealous campaign to get the attention of churches and the legislature. It was signed into law in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson. As it grew in popularity, however, Jarvis came to resent the commercialization of the holiday by florists and card makers and began organizing protests against it.
My favorite mother story comes from Ben Logan’s “The Land Remembers,” his account of growing up on a farm near Gays Mills in the 1930s. On winter evenings the family would gather around the dining room table — the kids doing their homework, the father calculating the amount of seed or fertilizer he would need for the upcoming season, the mother mending clothes — all of them brought close by the circle of light emanating from an old Rayo kerosene lamp.
When his father brought home a new lamp, the bright white light illuminated every corner of the room.
I remember Mother standing in the doorway to the kitchen one night, frowning in at us. “I’m not sure I like that new lamp.”
Father was at his usual place at the table. “Why not? Burns less kerosene.”
“Look where everyone is.”
We were scattered. There was even enough light to read by on the far side of the stove.
“We’re all here,” Father said.
“Not like we used to be.”
Father looked at the empty chairs around the table. “Want to go back to the old lamp?”
“I don’t think it’s the lamp. I think it’s us. Does a new lamp have to change where we sit at night?”
Father’s eyes found us, one by one. Then he made a little motion with his head. We came out of our corners and slid into our old places at the table, smiling at each other, a little embarrassed to be hearing this talk.
Mother sat down with us and nodded. “That’s better.”
Logan was fortunate to have a mother who understood the importance of constantly attending to the rituals of family life and also communicating that importance to her children in ways that were inviting. As parents we discover how difficult a task that is, through our own bumbling and partial attempts to maintain the conditions of genuine intimacy in which children flourish.
The motivations for celebrating Mother’s Day may not be entirely pure, but then neither is the love between parents and their children. And that is why, despite Anna Jarvis’ ambivalence, it is entirely appropriate that we celebrate Mother’s Day with flowers: first, because all flowers are beautiful, when viewed in a certain light; second, because they are temporary. You know that you have to enjoy them today. Before you know it they are gone, and you have only the memory of how they could brighten a room.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.