If Julia Ward Howe Were Alive Today...
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, Month 99, 2000
A popular anthem among the mill girls of the early part of this century used to go:
Perhaps those are the sentiments at the heart of our celebration of Mothers Day today-- both bread and roses.
Bread: sustenance, nurture, labor, the gifts of the earth, the gifts of life.
And roses: sentiment, remembrance, the beauty of life, the fragility and delicacy of life.
It was Julia Ward Howe-- Unitarian, abolitionist, radical, composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”-- who first proposed an American celebration of a “Mothers Day”-- or a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” as she called it-- way back in 1870, when the scars of a Civil War just ended still ran deep across the land. It was to be, Julia Ward Howe said, a day which would unite women the world over to denounce the scourge of violence and ultimately bring an end to war.
I think that Julia Ward Howe would have liked that song, “Bread and Roses”. I’m not so sure what she would have made of “Mothers Day”-- the holiday she helped to create-- as we celebrate it today.
There is, of course, every possibility that she wouldn’t have taken well to all the sentimentality of the day, not to mention the commercialization. Julia Ward Howe didn’t want mothers put up on pedestals, all dressed in Mothers Day finery. She wanted them down on the streets, with their sleeves rolled up, working together to change the world. She didn’t want them idealized and idolized. She wanted them to be listened to and respected for the gifts and ideas they had to offer. She was a woman who engaged with the world; she isn’t generally thought of as a sentimental sort.
But our spirits yearn for roses as certainly as our bodies yearn for bread. On Mothers Day, especially perhaps, there needs to be room for both, if we are to be whole-- room for both bread and roses in our lives and in our celebrations.
We live in a commercialized culture, so the commercialization of everything-- Mothers Day included-- is inevitable, I’m afraid. But we can look beyond the commercialization to the values we most want to affirm, as we remember all of our own mothers on this day: values like gratitude, and nurturing, and warmth, and tenderness-- and most of all, the greatest value of all, love.
That’s the roses side of Mothers Day: the sweet and sentimental side.
And sweetness is fine, and sentiment runs deep. But we hardly honor our mothers and their values if we pay lip service to them once a year, and run roughshod over for the rest of the time.
Commentators often like to go on and on about things like “the breakdown of the American family” and “the crisis of troubled youth” and the difficulties our children face growing up in these uncertain times. Many often call for a return to “traditional values”, “family values”. “We need to teach our kids our values,” they say.
Well, maybe we have-- and all too effectively.
The problem isn’t that our children aren’t learning our values. They problem may that they are-- if by that we mean the values of a society which values things more than people; which values rugged and selfish individualism over compassionate, creative cooperation; which values material accumulation over spiritual growth.
Maybe it is time for a return to older, more traditional values-- values like Julia Ward Howe called for in establishing that first Mothers Day:
Maybe it’s time at last to get back to the original spirit of Mothers Day as Julia Ward Howe and the great women of her day envisioned it-- and offer our mothers on this day not a stone (even a rose-colored stone) of false affection and empty sentiments. But rather, to present them (as they have presented us) with the bread of life-- the work of human hands-- to feed, to nurture, to sustain-- works of justice-- works of peace-- works of love:
“...but a sharing of life’s glories-- bread and roses, bread and roses!”