Today marks the 100th observance of Mother’s Day; the first one was on May 10, 1908, in a Methodist church in Grafton, W.Va. By now most people know that it started with Anna Reeves Jarvis, who in the mid-1800s tried to improve health conditions in Appalachia through her Mother’s Work Days; that, in 1870, Julia Ward Howe issued a Mother’s Day Proclamation, calling for peace after the Civil War; and that Jarvis’ daughter, also named Anna, was behind the 1908 celebration, to honor her mother. She finally saw Woodrow Wilson make Mother’s Day an annual holiday in 1914 but came to despise its devolution into a card, a box of candy and a buffet brunch.
But a mere 100 years offers little perspective. I suggest we look further back, to the first mothers of Western culture: the mothers of Achilles and Odysseus, heroes of Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Individually, they’re remarkable. Together -- call them the Meddler and the Martyr -- they give a snapshot of what it means, and has always meant, to be a mother.
Start with Thetis, mother of Achilles, the brooding hero of “The Iliad.” Thetis, a nymph, marries Peleus, a mortal, and the couple provides an example -- long before Darrin and Samantha Stephens of television’s “Bewitched” -- that intermarriages face unusual difficulties. In fact, it’s a brouhaha among the gods at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus that sets in motion the events that caused the Trojan War.
But today, consider Thetis only as Achilles’ mother -- the meddling type who has difficulty cutting the apron strings. First, worried that her precious boy has been sullied by mortal blood, she tries to render her infant son immortal by dipping him either into the water of the River Styx or into fire, depending on which myth you prefer. Either way, she holds him by the heel, which doesn’t get the treatment; hence Achilles’ weak heel.
But she’s not done trying to manipulate her son. A prophecy states that if he fights at Troy, Achilles will gain renown but also surely perish. Thetis tries to keep him away from the war by dressing him as a girl. Yes, Achilles’ mother turns her warrior son into the Cpl. Klinger of Bronze Age Greece, 3,000 years before “MASH.” Thetis fails in her endeavors, and Achilles spends part of his life impersonating a woman and then dies young. Let’s leave that to the Freudians and move on to Odysseus.
“The Odyssey” describes the adventures of war-weary, middle-aged Odysseus as he returns from Troy. His mother, Anticleia, falls, unlike Thetis, in the martyr camp. In one of his lesser-known episodes, Odysseus ventures to the land of the dead to consult an inconveniently deceased prophet. While there, he runs into a great many famous people, including ... Anticleia!
The scene runs like something from a Woody Allen movie: “Mom! What are you doing here?” Anticleia: “Well, you never call, you never write. ...”
At this point in the story, Odysseus has been away from home about 12 years; he’s won the Trojan War, he’s blinded the Cyclops, and he has spent the preceding year contentedly feasting and having sex with the witch Circe. And it turns out that in his long absence his mother has died -- from grief, missing him: “It was my longing for you, my shining Odysseus ... that tore away my life that had been sweet.” A thousand guilt-inducing-mother jokes leap to mind: “No, no, Mr. Big Shot, you go out and have your war, fight your giants, you’re very important: I’ll just stay home alone and die!”
It’s hilarious and perfect, especially because immediately after comes the heartbreak: Odysseus, “desperate to hold her,” tries to embrace his mother three times -- and each time her phantasmal form “fluttered through my fingers ... dissolving like a dream.” He pretty much hurries home to his wife after that.
So, two mothers, two sons at the dawn of our culture, and what has changed? Nothing. Mothers will do anything to protect their children from harm, and may on occasion forget that eventually that becomes their children’s job, not their own. Mothers may free children to pursue their interests -- then develop a litany of grievances when freedom carries the children far away. And children, too late, wish to embrace their mothers, to hold them dear. (It’s even rumored that Anna Jarvis fought so hard for Mother’s Day because her mother died before the two could resolve a quarrel.)
So it’s the same as it ever was. Your mother does her best, and if you’re lucky she lives until you’re ready to embrace her. But she cannot protect you forever because, in fact, you do need to go out and fight your wars and confront your giants.
But would it hurt so much to call your mother once in a while?