The Personalist Project

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Accessed on May 25, 2017 - 7:57:09

A Daughter’s Love: The Story Behind an Apostrophe

Kate Whittaker Cousino, May 12, 2017

An interesting note on the punctuation of "Mother's Day" caught my eye this week while reading about the founding of the holiday. The founder of Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, was apparently very particular about the apostrophe coming before the s, making a singular possessive rather than a plural. The story I read attributed this to Jarvis's desire that this be a day "for each family to honour their [own] mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world." 

This is more than merely a grammatical note--though I am happy to have it settled in my mind which is the correct punctuation! Reading more about Jarvis, it's rapidly clear that the founding of Mother's Day was very much about one daughter's devotion to her mother, and her desire that others should honour their own mothers, both living and deceased. 

Jarvis declared the white carnation the official flower of Mother’s Day, and she urged sons and daughters to visit their mothers or, at the very least, to write home on Mother’s Day. “Live this day as your mother would have you live it,” Jarvis instructed in her letters. Her vision for the day was domestic — focusing on a mother’s role within the home — and highly sentimental. It was to be celebrated “in honor of the best mother who ever lived — your own.”

Jarvis herself grew increasingly agitated over the commercialization of "her" holiday. Undoubtably there was pride mixed up in this as the idea outgrew its founder and took on a life of its own. Jarvis developed a reputation for peevishness and eccentricity, and at one point had multiple lawsuits pending to defend the name and emblems of "Mother's Day" from things she thought of as abuses: sales, fundraisers, even charity causes.

 Antolini says Jarvis didn’t trust charities’ allocation of funds, but she especially hated the notion that charitable causes were transforming Mother’s Day into an occasion where mothers were to be pitied more than honored. “You honor them regardless of how rich or how poor or what color or creed,” Antolini says. “That, to me, makes sense. She has some valid complaints about how her day was being used.”

Anna Jarvis was never able to put the genie of Mother's Day back in the bottle. This weekend, mothers everywhere will get store-bought cards and flowers, bought on sale or as fundraisers. There will be encomiums delivered at pulpits and from stages about the ideal of motherhood and what it means to us. Whether or not the apostrophe lands in front of the s, the day itself has become plural: a day when journalists and commentators sit at their keyboards to talk about motherhood in general and what it means today.

But I still think there is something for each of us to take away from the story of Anna Jarvis and her insistence on the singular possessive form of "Mother's Day." Love gains in strength and becomes concrete, becomes realized, when it is personal. We can love motherhood in general--smile benevolently at it, talk about how it is good and how it needs to be cherished and valued. But we can only cherish and value mothers individually, as the people they are. 

Personal relationships are messier than are general ideals. They require repentance and forgiveness, forbearance and boundary-setting. They can be wounded or broken. We don't know very much about the relationship Anna Jarvis had with her mother during her mother's life. Mother's Day came from Jarvis's grief, from the empty space left by the loss of her mother. 

But the only way we can love anything or anyone at all is in the messiness of what is real in them and in us. 

Perhaps, this weekend, we can take the time to see the reality of the women who have birthed, raised, nurtured, or mentored us. The mothers, biological or otherwise, in each of our lives. And in the messiness, perhaps we can take Anna Jarvis's advice and find a few words of love or acknowledgement to write that come, not from a Hallmark card, but from the particular realities of the people we are to one another. 

This year, I want to celebrate Mother's Day in the singular possessive.

Image: a picture of my mother, taken last summer.