The Mothers' Day just passed and the impending Fathers' Day turns my mind to the notion of mothering and fathering, so essential to all of us at some points in our lives.
Without both we would not be here. Without a mother we likely would not have survived our first year; without a father we can stumble through adult life. The roles are traditionally different. The mother nurtures the young, the father sends off the young adult into the world outside the family.
In families in which one parent is dead or absent, as the one in which I grew up, often a mother or a father will try to do both and ease the heartbreak in both child and parent. For there is no greater hole in the heart than when father is no longer sitting at the dinner table on Fathers' Day or when mother is gone from the hearth on Mothers' Day.
Yet I can attest, also, that the hole closes and heals when you begin to father or to mother your own child, or someone else's. Then, by happy and unintentional coincidence, you end up parenting the child inside you.
There is, of course, a certain mother and father chauvinism at work in how we recall our progenitors. My mother, now dead for years, used to think Mother's Day was better than Easter or Christmas; in my teenage years I thought that was a bit self-serving. Of course, the greeting card companies agree and the politicians would have nothing but good to say about fighting for apple pie and Mom.
But that's not how Mother's Day started.
Originally, it was a call for peace and disarmament. The holiday was first celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1908, under the leadership of by Anna Jarvis, who had begun organizing women to improve sanitation in 1858 and to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors after the Civil War. Her appeal to motherhood as an ideal of peace was embraced by Julia Ward Howe in a poetic proclamation of Mother's Day in 1870.
Two years after Jarvis' West Virginia celebration, Sonora Smart Dodd celebrated her father, William Jackson Smart, who had raised her and five other children in Spokane, Washington. Mothers' Day was officially proclaimed a holiday by President Woodrow Wilson, Father's Day by President Lyndon Johnson.
Parenting is about peace and disarmament, about nurturing, inspiring, and simply being there, all with no thought of recompense or reward. If the commercialism wears on you, you are not alone. Anna Jarvis protested against Mothers Day in the 1920s, once the holiday took off and commercialization set in.
Yet we all can celebrate motherhood and fatherhood in everyday ways -- without a holiday. I can paint no better picture of it than what I saw recently upon approaching the home of a friend I intended to drop in on by surprise one evening.
I approached the house and saw my friend teaching her young teenage daughter dance steps, her son prancing about, perhaps mockingly, yet in utter, unabashed joy. At one point another child, an older daughter, came over to enfold everyone in her arms. It was a charming, warm scene that I knew my arrival would only disrupt. So I stood there a few minutes peering in, as if I were watching a Disney movie about an idealized family having clean fun on a Saturday night ... only this was real.
I recalled a few moments of the sort that I had experienced with my sons and I envied that she still had that priceless time. Then I tiptoed to my car. In my last quick look everyone behind that window still looked happy and loved and warm.
And they were.