Mother’s Day Corsages, Peace Movements and Work Days: What Does Mother’s Day Mean to You?

Golda Faye Taylor McElroy and Mary Sue McElroy Martin in Dardanelle, Arkansas. Circa 1988.

Golda Faye Taylor McElroy and Mary Sue McElroy Martin in Dardanelle, Arkansas. Circa 1988.

In old photo albums and shoe boxes there are several photos of my mother and her mother wearing corsages on Mother’s Day. Usually they’re standing in front of the lilac bush or the deep purple irises, my mother wearing a red corsage and her mother a white one. I distinctly remember my mother explaining the tradition to me one Sunday morning as we were sitting in the old Church of Christ building on Union Street. Red corsages were worn by women whose mothers were still living, she explained.Women who had lost their mothers wore white.

Looking over at my grandmother, Golda Faye Taylor McElroy—who must have been nearing 70 at the time—I thought about what her white corsage meant. I began to realize that she hadn’t always been my grandmother. She’d once been a young woman with a living mother, and, before that, a young child like myself. I remember wondering if she missed her mother and began to ponder how long it had been since she’d worn a red flower.

Then I looked around at the rest of the congregation and noticed just how many other women were also wearing white flowers, some of them even young women like my mother. Pinned on all their dresses, those simple flowers spoke volumes about the aging process, the continuity and complexity of motherhood, and the mysteries we carry with us. I remember wondering if I’d ever wear a red flower of my own. Turns out I never did. My mother died before my own children were born, so these days I wear a white one, too.

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Julia Ward Howe. Image from juliawardhowe.org

Wearing a flower for Mother’s Day isn’t the popular tradition it once was, nor does it date back to the founding of Mother’s Day, which began with an Appalachian woman named Anna Jarvis. In 1858 she called for the creation of “Mother’s Work Days,” to bring people together to improve sanitation and clean up the polluted waterways in the region which were leading to many needless deaths. Nearly two decades later in Boston, the poet, suffragist, and staunch pacifist, Julia Ward Howe asked mothers to fight for peace. Falling on the heels of the bloody Franco-Prussian War, Howe called for a special day to bring mothers together to organize against further wars.

But it wasn’t until many years later that Mothers Day became recognized as an official holiday.  Anna Jarvis’s daughter, also named Anna, recalled her mother once saying, “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day. There are many days for men, but none for mothers.” The younger Jarvis sought to honor her mother’s activism and began to push for such a holiday throughout West Virginia and beyond. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday in May as the official Mothers Day. According to historians, it deeply troubled the younger Anna Jarvis that the holiday became commercialized and she actively fought against this commercialization until her death.

Each family, each community, has their own way of celebrating Mother’s Day, and subsequent generations will form new traditions of their own. What about you? Do you wear a corsage? Do you visit cemeteries for Decoration Days on Mother’s Day or engage in community work? Do you have shoe boxes full of pictures of your own family wearing mother’s day corsages? I’d love to hear your stories. And if you have photos you’d be willing to share, please send them along! 

* A recorded version of this essay was also published on the Ozarks at large Program on KUAF 91.3, National Public Radio. 

To learn more about Julia Ward Howe,  both Anna Jarvises and the history of Mother’s Day click on the links below.

History of Mother’s Day from the National Women’s History Project

“Mother’s Day History” from National Geographic

More on Julia Ward Howe’s peace activism

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.