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Mommy, Where Did Mother's Day Come From?

Statue at the International Mother's Day Shrine in Grafton.
Statue at the International Mother's Day Shrine in Grafton. (West Virginia Tourism)
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By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I asked nicely. I wheedled. I cajoled. And, yes, I bribed (sigh). Almost had him with that, but then no dice. After all, what self-respecting 20-year-old male would want to spend a weekend in some sleepy hollow of Appalachia, investigating the 100th anniversary of Mother's Day? With his mother.

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"I have a party to go to," weaseled No. 1 son. "Besides, I could feed the cat for you."

Good point -- if he'd remember. Still, as my husband and I headed for the mountains of West Virginia without him, I couldn't help feeling a bit bereft. If only I'd had a daughter, I pouted, instead of two boys. A daughter like Anna Jarvis, say.

Now there was a kid who took to heart that biblical injunction about honoring your mother, she being the daughter we moms have to thank for the past century of flowers and cards and gifts of papier-mache handprints and lumpy lanyards bestowed upon us by our beloved offspring every second Sunday of May. And you thought it was all Hallmark's idea.

Nuh-uh. It was because a devoted daughter went the extra mile to grant a maternal wish that mothers be honored for all they did. Because she stumped across the country for nine years to create a national holiday in their name. Now Grafton, W.Va., a seen-better-days-but-is-coming-back hamlet of about 5,500 people that straddles the Tygart Valley River, thinks it's time that its native daughter and her mother got their due. Along with their home town, of course.

Once a thrumming railroad hub, Grafton now promotes itself as the "Birthplace of Mother's Day" and home to the International Mother's Day Shrine (incorporated in 1972). With the 100th mom's day coming up, I'd expected maybe some big banners, a village decked out to tout its claim to fame. But on an overcast Saturday, the downtown carried that slightly desolate air of all small towns where Wal-Mart and Home Depot have moved in on the edges. Still, there were some pretty buildings and 19th-century-style street lamps going up. Lots of potential.

The former Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, a.k.a. the Shrine, sat mute in the middle of Main Street, only a couple of signs heralding it as the site of the first Mother's Day service, held at Anna's request on May 10, 1908. (The national holiday was declared six years later by President Woodrow Wilson.)

That service was at 9 a.m., beating out a 2 p.m. celebration in Philadelphia, where the adult Anna was living by then. Which led to a tussle for a while, according to the shrine's program coordinator, Cindi Mason. The City of Brotherly Love tried to bigfoot Grafton on the Mother's Day thing, until the town put its own foot down. "Anna wanted the first service held here, at the church her mother attended," Mason said. "We told them, 'Uh-uh. It's ours.' "

Despite the cloudy day, the simple but striking former sanctuary was filled with light, thanks to soaring stained-glass windows. The building is used mostly for weddings these days, but on Sunday, it will resume its old role, hosting a service commemorating that original one of a century ago.

We had the place to ourselves, but Mason said the shrine receives about 2,300 visitors annually; she and the board of trustees want to quadruple that. "We hope folks will come and learn about the real history of Mother's Day and then keep coming back," said Chad Proudfoot, a 20-something board member who materialized from the renovated Beaux Arts railroad station up the street, where he'd been helping set up for the Carnation Ball that night. He went on and on about the glories of Grafton and how he loved growing up here. Such a fine young fellow, I thought, listening to him. I bet he'd go somewhere if his mother asked. A young man like that would make any mother proud.

We looked around the ground-floor museum, including the small room where the mother who inspired it all, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, taught Sunday school for 20 years. The back story on Mrs. Jarvis: a 19th-century dynamo who bore 14 children, 10 of whom died in childhood, leading her to form "mothers' work clubs" to teach women about hygiene and sanitation. She also let Union Army Gen. George McClellan use her home as a headquarters in the Civil War, nursed soldiers on both sides of the conflict and organized a reconciliation service after it ended.

Obviously quite a woman. Whose daughter adored her. Might even have spent a weekend in the mountains with her, even though any young adult has better things to do than take a trip with their mother.

We walked past a wall of plaques you could buy to honor your mom. Not likely there'd ever be one with my name on it. Sigh.

Next, we headed a few miles south of town to the Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum, the small white frame house where Anna was born in 1864. Olive Dadisman restored the house in the 1990s with her husband, Tom, through private donations that people gave in honor of their mothers. She regaled us with tales of life in the mid-19th century -- baths once a year, diapers washed once a month (!) -- as she took us through rooms chockablock with Jarvis family artifacts, including Anna's clothes, hats and letters. A family shared our tour: six kids, ages 8 to at least 18. How'd that mother get that teenager to come, I wanted to know. He doesn't look so different from my sons. Humph.

Here's the sad thing about Anna Jarvis: Mother's Day was her only baby. And in the end, she was so put off by its success (i.e., commercialization) that she started a petition to rescind it and was promptly popped into an institution, where she died, alone, in 1948.

Let that be a lesson to you, I thought as we arrived back home. Let your kids be. After all, you haven't done so badly. At least he fed the cat.


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