Friday, May 21, 2010

Huge As Asia

Mother's Day again, come and gone.  I was going to focus on a mother-song, "The One Who Knows," by Dar Williams.  But the history behind Mother's Day led to this longer post, which begins with neither song nor history but a poem.

Here is the first stanza of "To My Mother," by George Barker (1913-1991):

     Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
     Under the window where I often found her
     Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
     Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
     Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
     The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her, ––
     She is a procession no one can follow after
     But be like a little dog following a brass band.

"Huge as Asia, seismic with laughter," this mother is alive with motion, yet immovable at the same time.  In the second stanza, Barker will locate the time frame as that of the blitz in World War II Britain:

     She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
     To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
     But lean on the mahogany table like a mountain ...

This is a Churchillian mother, large, compelling, anchoring, and nothing like the mother occasioned each Mother's Day by present day marketers.  That mother is often treacly, jewellry bedazzled, and usually denatured.

It was not always so.  Our modern form of Mother's Day traces to 1914 when Woodrow Wilson designated it a national holiday.  Wilson's act culminated a seven year effort by Anna Marie Jarvis (1864-1948) to establish a nationally recognized Mother's Day in memory of her own mother.  Jarvis was the daughter of Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis (1832-1905), a West Virginia homemaker who had become a social activist and pacifist.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis
Ann Jarvis –– who lost eight of her twelve children to infectious diseases –– organized Mothers' Work Day groups around issues of safety and sanitation, beginning in the 1850’s.  During the Civil War, she organized groups to provide nursing to the wounded on both sides.  After that conflict, she created Mother's Friendship Day to promote community reconciliation and pacifism.  It had been her dream to have a national day created to honor mothers.  (See Wikipedia, West Virginia Archives and History.)

Julia Ward Howe
Her ideas to utilize large groups of women for social change influenced Julia Ward Howe.  Howe (1819-1910) is perhaps best known as the writer of the "Battle Hymn of The Republic" (1862).  But in 1870 she wrote a Mother's Day Proclamation, a pacifist response to the carnage of the Civil War and the ongoing Franco-Prussian War. Howe's Proclamation called for "a general congress of women without limit of nationality," which congress would forge alliances so that "the great human family can live in peace."  (See Wikipedia, or  Women's History.)

These women, Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe, conceived of mothering as socio-political activity extending well beyond the household.  Although George Barker's mother is not depicted as a social activist, she is clearly not a tea-and-cookies mom, being instead "a brass band" of a woman who presumably would prefer gin to a box of chocolates.  She is fearless, holds everything in place, and seems like a one-woman substrate –– and in that sense, is closer to Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe than to a tearful recipient of a diamond necklace.

Anna Marie Jarvis

Ironically, Ann Jarvis's daughter, Anna Marie, was more interested in the relationship to one's biological mother than in large groups of organized mothers.  She insisted on the apostrophe before the "s" in Mother's Day, as an indicator that the day honored one's own mother.  And her political activity was largely in the service of establishing a national Mother's Day –– and later, in trying to dismantle what she had created.

What's that again? you're thinking.  Yes, it turned out that by the early 1920's, Anna Marie Jarvis had come to despise Mother's Day as a commercial mutant of the original.  A 2008 article in the Ottawa Citizen  recounts an episode in which Ms. Jarvis was in the tea room at Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia.  Coming across a "Mother's Day Salad" on the menu, "she ordered it, dumped it on the floor, got up and left."  Similarly, she was once arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting the commercialization of Mother's Day.  Her New York Times obituary cited this quote:

     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.  And candy!  You take a box to Mother –– and then
     eat most of it yourself.  A pretty sentiment.

So the creator of Mother's Day grew embittered over time with her offspring, not surprisingly given what it had become.  (See NPR: All Things Considered, or The Mother of All Holidays.)

   The One Who Knows:
   Dar Williams

At this point, we can leave Mother's Day history and turn to my favorite song about mothering, "The One Who Knows," by Dar Williams.  The mother in this song is neither treacly nor socio-political.  Rather, she seems that combination of active presence and foundational support similar to that depicted in the George Barker poem.  A reflective piece, it has spare instrumentation and back-up vocals by Alison Krauss –– and the mother here is, if not Rabelaisian, grounded and grounding.

The song has three verses, each of which frames aspects of maternal knowing of a child.  The verses alternate with this refrain:

     You'll fly away but take my hand until that day
     So when they ask how far love goes
     When my job's done, you'll be the one who knows

I like this refrain.  It has a wistful tone of anticipatory parting, but that tone is balanced by confidence that the mothering will live on within the grown child.  The nature of that mothering is described in the three verses, the first of which goes:

     Time it was I had a dream
     And you're the dream come true.
     And if I had the world to give
     I'd give it all to you
     I'll take you to the mountains
     I will take you to the sea
     I'll show you how this life became
     A miracle to me.

The activity of mothering here is two-fold.  The first four lines show a grateful awareness within the mother and a promise that she will provide.  It is a seemingly passive activity, a reverie-like state of mind, yet one which would necessarily convey a feeling of being valued to a child.  The rest of the verse shows more engagement and activity.  This mother will show the world to her child, present the "miracle" of being in that world, present that world as safe and attracting.  The "I" pronoun feels like a "we".

Then there is the refrain, and the second verse:

     All the things you treasure most
     Will be the hardest won
     I will watch you struggle long
     Before the answers come
     But I won't make it harder
     I'll be there to cheer you on
     I'll shine the light that guides you down
     The road you're walking on.
Here, mothering involves a two-fold activity again.  First is an awareness that "the things you treasure most" come with a feeling of efficacy; they are worked at and mastered, not handed to you.  Second is a straightforward attitude of encouragement.  They go together, mastery works best when there is a supportive and facilitating environment.

Then the refrain again, and the third verse:

     Before the mountains call to you
     Before you leave this home
     I want to teach your heart to trust
     As I will teach my own
     But sometimes I will ask the moon
     Where it shined upon you last
     And shake my head and laugh and say
     It all went by so fast.

There is something beautiful in this last verse, the mutual learning of trust.  The child will learn to go out into the world with confidence, and this mother will learn to let that happen.  It's wistful, it's OK, it's a rueful hoot, and the last lines about time and parting echo that.

Finally, the closing refrain:

     You'll fly away but take my hand until that day
     So when they ask how far love goes
     When my job's done you'll be the one who knows.

This song moves me.  "The One Who Knows" really is about knowing –– a mother's knowing of her child, a knowing of what's to come, a knowing that it's going to be all right; ultimately, a child's experience of having been known.  It is this knowing that is foundational, that is "as huge as Asia," and reason enough for a Mother's Day.


Unknown said...

Kit, I loved this piece. I knew your mother, of course, probably as well as any niece knows an aunt with whom she has only periodic contact over the years, and I can see some of her attitudes and aspirations in the words of the song. She always said you were the nicest person she knew, which I thought was very perceptive (and quite unusual from a mother speaking about her youngest child). Whenever I spent time with her, she was more interested in hearing about my life than in talking about her own, which was frequently much more interesting and always more unpredictable than mine. That song makes me miss her.

Daryl said...

What an amazing post. Thanks for taking the time to research this and put it in such a powerful message. Welcome back...

Barry said...

Hi Kit
I'd write you a longer comment, but I have to go phone my mom now.
Great blog. Keep writing.

Anne said...

Dear one,
What a wonderful post. I just got back to your blogs after a long absence, This is another teary one for me. I'm not sure mom was Churchillian but looking back at 70 I must say she was so strong in spite of being jewellry bedazzled. Look for Natalie Merchant, arriving soon. Love you.

Penny said...

Kit -- This is a beautiful tribute to your mother, and to all the mothers of us out here. I loved everything about the song, and must agree with my sister, Laurie, that it does indeed honor your mother (and ours) in many ways. We are most fortunate to have had the love and guidance which they provided, and we miss them every bit as much as the day they died. Take care for yourself for your loved ones!


Elizabeth said...

Thoughtful and informative.
What a formidable mother in the poem.
Made me think I should spend more time exploring verse rather than flitting about on the internet ( and walking Buster).
All best wishes

Anonymous said...

How beautiful, Kit.
The melody is lovely too - I followed your link. I think I'll add some of these lyrics to a card for Kyla when she leaves for college in the fall.
Thank you

Comments are appreciated: