It was for this mother and son—for Harry Huff and his mother—a tender and beloved, annual ritual. Every year on Mother’s Day, after breakfast, dressed for church, Harry and his mother opened the screen door, stepped outside into their Tennessee back yard and approached the rose bushes. Harry chose a red rose to wear in honor of his mother. His mother chose a white rose to wear in memory of her mother.
Each would help the other pin the rose to their clothing—one red, one white—each carrying in their hearts their mothers, one here, the other on a farther shore and in a greater light. Thus flowered and empowered by love, mother and son departed for church.
Arriving at church, they would be two among a sea of red or white, rose-decorated parishioners … each literally wearing on their hearts, their love, or their grief, or their memories.
Then one year, Harry told us, it was his turn to cut a white rose.
Our family treated the day rather differently. My father decried it as a purely commercial holiday, thought up by Hallmark: a made-up holiday designed to prey upon our sentiments and, thus, to extract from us the cost of flowers, cards, chocolates and nice lunches.
At dinner last week with an old friend whose mother recently passed, tears welling, she blurted out, “I can’t bear Mother’s Day.”
Mother’s Day can be complicated and conflicted, fraught and freighted: for the mother whose child has died; for the child whose mother has died; for the one who gave up her child for adoption; for the child given up for adoption; for the family whose mother is not a good mother. Mother’s Day can be fraught and freighted. Or it can also be gentle and good.
Welcome to planet earth and to the life among humans. We are a complicated lot: by turns tender and sentimental, principled and practical, quirky and scratchy, cynical and suspicious, broken and breaking.
In the face of this messy, human complexity, here is my proposal. In the spirit of Julia Ward Howe, I proclaim this Mother’s Day be a Harry Potter holiday: a Muggles and Wizards holiday. I declare it to be a day in which two parallel universes exist. They exist side by side and rarely come together.
For people like me, Mother’s Day is a two-fer. I operate easily and willingly in the obvious holiday (the Muggle holiday: the roses and cupcake holiday, the corsage and luncheon holiday, the greeting card and breakfast-for-your-mother-in-bed holiday. While I don’t disagree with my father, I am a sucker for sentiment. I have for my mother deep respect, profound love and immense gratitude. I sent her flowers and will call her this afternoon.
If you are like me, you can send flowers to your mother—or remember your mother—with fondness. But, if Mother’s Day is tricky for you, emotionally fraught, or if you are simply a hard-nosed, hard-boiled, hard-bitten unsentimental cynic … to you, dear friends, allow me to introduce a Port key.
In the world of Harry Potter, the Port key is an enchanted object that carries you to a specific location.
Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870 is a Port key. To touch it is to be transported to a room, a great, grand room in a universe parallel to this one. It is a room in which mothers from around the world have gathered (can you see them: kimonos, saris, burqas, ponchos, Lederhosen, aprons.) Can you hear the tinkle and jingle of jewelry?
They are in congress, these mothers. They are gathered in solemn assembly. They are gathered for “a great and earnest day of counsel”. They are conspiring together to make peace. They are scheming about how to rid the world of war. They have locked the doors; they have locked the men out. This is a mothers-only assembly. The room is filled with mothers whose beloved sons disappeared to war and never returned. It is filled with mother’s whose sons marched off to war hale and whole, bursting with pride and courage, but who returned bloodied, bent, broken and forever altered.
The room is filled with mothers for whom war is not nobility but brutality, not triumph but torment, not victory but the very definition of failure.
Julia Ward Howe was a mother of seven. She penned her defiant proclamation after her son, Sam’s, death. She penned it after the Civil War and its terrible carnage. She penned it as a radical abolitionist who cherished the aims and ends of the Civil War—who supported the Civil War and who wrote its most stirring summons to arms, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She cherished the purpose of that war, but its means chastened and sobered her.She penned it as a mother battled-scarred and grieving (not only over what Confederate sons did to their Union brothers, but also over what Union sons did to their Confederate brothers). It was penned by mother who dared challenge the alliance of war and patriotism and who disagreed that a soldier’s prowess could be measured in the number of enemy he killed.
This is America’s underground Mother’s Day. It was born, not as a call to arms, but as a call to disarm. Not as a battle cry, but as a mother’s wracking sobs.
This is our clandestine Mother’s Day. It is the underground Mother’s Day conceived by Julia Ward Howe long before Harry Truman in 1945 proclaimed the second Sunday in May to as a day to “acknowledge anew our gratitude, love, and devotion to the mothers of America …”
The truth is that Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day lives in a parallel universe to Harry Truman’s. Howe’s Mother’s Day is underground, clandestine, because a nation like ours cannot abide it. We cannot abide it in full view. We cannot abide it as a nation because it was in its day and remains today an open and defiant challenge to our national assumption that patriotism and militarism are inextricably bound.
If you are like me you have a heart for both Mother’s Days: Truman’s and Howe’s The one which honors mothers. The other imagines women from the world gathered in earnest and solemn counsel to foment peace.
Let this be a deep, complicated and important day …. as deep and complicated and important as our lives as sons and daughters, as our lives as mothers and fathers, as our lives as men and women, as our lives as citizens both of this nation and of God’s whole wide world.
Red in honor of your mother. White, in her memory.
Red, for revolution. White, for peace.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Julia Ward Howe’s
Mother’s Day Proclamation (1870)
Arise then ... women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: “We will not have questions answered by irrelevant
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace …
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.