Celebrating Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day came and went, just another day in the calendar. Little bits of Colombo stirred, here and there, to celebrate – in hotels, homes and private occasions. But no organisation or institution, state-run or private, saw a need to organise a large-scale event, or discussion based on books, movies, personal experiences. No radio or TV channel managed a meaningful programme on the theme. In short, Mother’s Day was far less remarkable than May Day, Valentine’s Day or Children’s Day, despite the fact that ours is hailed as a matriarchal society and motherhood is ranked (at least in some minds) almost on the same pedestal as sainthood.

The Sunday papers (May 12) had sundry articles on topics such as if Prabhakaran is hiding in Eritrea, a successful bust of a gold-smuggling racket, Sirima Bandaranaike’s days as non-aligned leader and a  home for elderly women. Mother’s Day was conspicuous by its absence. Its as if all Valentines who are celebrate on Feb. 14 each year are quietly forgotten once they marry and have children.

Modern Mother’s Day began in the United States, first suggested in 1872 by Julia Ward Howe, an activist, writer and poet. Hers was an anti-war sentiment, rallying women against war in her famous Mother’s Day Proclamation. But it is Anna Jarvis, another American, who is recognised as the Founder of Mother’s Day in the US.
Mothers are often celebrated in our songs, but Sunday’s astounding blankness only made me recall Maxim Gorky’s words “Mothers are hardly ever pitied.” The American Poetry Association, though, released a special online edition of Mother’s Day poems, which included Robert Louis Stephenson’s poem ‘To Any Reader.’
“As from the house your mother sees/You playing round the garden trees/So you may see, if you will look/Through the windows of this book/Another child, far, far away/And in another garden, play./But do not think you can at all/ By knocking on the window/ call that child to hear you/ He intent is all on his play-business bent/ He does not hear;/ he will not look,/ Nor yet be lured out of this book./For, long ago, the truth to say,/He has grown up and gone away,/And it is but a child of air/That lingers in the garden there.”

The poem is about a sobering truth – that children grow up and go away. “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons”, a modern poem by Diane Wakoski, is about another sobering truth – how mothers toil to raise and educate their children. This is true of wealthy America, where most people seem rich by our standards (though not by the standards of our political elite), as it is of Sri Lanka, where most people are now poor (or becoming so day by day) even by our own standards. It is too long to be quoted in full, but even the little quoted here is very poignant.

“I want to thank my mother/ for working every day/ in a drab office/ in garages and water companies/ cutting the cream of her coffee at 40/ to lose weight, her heavy body/writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers/ alone, with no man to look at her face,/ her body, her prematurely white hair/ in love/ I want to thank/my mother for working and always paying for/my piano lessons/ before she paid the Bank of America loan/ or brought the groceries/ or had our old rattling Ford repaired.”
“But I played my way/ on the old upright piano/obtained for $10./played my way through fear,/through ugliness/ through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,/ and a desire to love a loveless world.”

“When I touch the man/ I love./I want to thank my mother for giving me/ piano lessons/ all these years,/ keeping the memory of Beethoven,/ a deaf tortured man,/in mind.”
That speaks for a lot of mums, across all kinds of cultures and time zones. The mother of pioneer African-American jazz composer Scott Joplin (famous for his ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and the opera ‘Treemonisha’) worked as a domestic to pay for her son’s piano lessons. In India, millions of women slave in bonded labour so that their children can go to school, and thousands of Sri Lankan women work as domestics in the Middle East under degrading conditions so that their children (theoretically at least) can have a better future.

" Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons”, a modern poem by Diane Wakoski, is about another sobering truth – how mothers toil to raise and educate their children "

But they remain unsung. Similar struggles have been treated by writers, dramatists, painters and film makers as worthy sagas which encapsulate the eternal human struggle for dignity. In India, director Mehboob Khan told a similar story in the 1957 film classic Mother India, the story of a village woman who has to feed her two sons after her husband loses both arms in an accident. She wages an epic struggle against poverty as well as natural disasters, losing one son on the way. In far away Europe, dramatist Bertolt Brecht saw motherhood from an altogether different angle when he wrote his celebrated play ‘Mother Courage and Her Children.’ In ancient times, Greek dramatist Euripedes cast motherhood in a sinister light when he wrote Media, about a sorceress who, when betrayed by her husband Jason, slays their two children in revenge.

But the most famous work of all on this theme, perhaps, is Maxim Gorky’s novel ‘Mother.’ It’s a work which passionately divides its admirers and critics. As one disparaging critic wrote: “Leave ‘Mother’ on the shelf, and certainly don’t buy it for your own mother; she won’t thank you.”

The central character in Mother is Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova, a widow whose ex-husband was a wife-beater. Her son Pavel becomes a socialist and plays a militant role in the strikes which led to the failed 1905 workers’ rising against the Tsarist government. Though initially passive, she begins to support her son and his friends, with tragic results for herself. Mother is seen by some as an artistic failure due to Gorky’s inability to separate art from politics, but it’s hugely popular with many millions whose politics are left-wing (and even those who are not).

Amazingly, Mother’s Day is officially celebrated only in 47 countries. This is surprising given the exalted status traditionally given to motherhood across countries and cultures worldwide.

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