I am confounded by the irony of the fact that Anna Jarvis, the American woman who founded “Mother’s Day,” never married and had no children of her own. Jarvis is credited with officially founding the holiday in 1908, two years after losing her own mother. Still grieving, the young woman held a ceremony in West Virginia to honour her mother and was so moved by the effects of her own efforts, that she embarked on a national campaign to have the country honour the contributions made by mothers. In 1910, West Virginia became the first state to celebrate Mother’s Day and a year later the country’s other states officially set aside the day as well.
Sadly, Jarvis spent the rest of her life trying to undo what she had done. Angered by the commercialization of Mother’s Day, she filed a lawsuit in 1923 to stop a Mother’s Day festival. She was later arrested for disturbing the peace when she learned that a war mothers’ convention was selling white carnations — her symbol for mothers — to raise money. Jarvis died at the age of 84, never having become a mother herself and having spent most of the fortune her own mother left her, to fight a holiday she had created to honour her.
Like Jarvis, I have never been a mother — but I certainly have had a mother and feel eager to celebrate her memory. As a child, however, I did have a bit of a difficult time figuring out what to do for Mother’s Day. Many Mother’s Day proposals suggested fixing breakfast for mother and bringing it on a tray to her bedside. My mother would always prefer to sleep in, rather than to have someone barging into her boudoir and waking her up with food, and she was not at all fond of the idea of myself or (Heaven help us!) my father, messing around in her kitchen. I was never sure of what to bring her as a gift — we had a big garden and our house was always filled with flowers and so that was not an option. And jewellery or clothing were beyond my childish means. It even was difficult to find a card. My stylish mother had nothing of that “Betty Crocker” appeal of the mothers that appeared on greeting cards — she never wore a housedress, that I can recall, and I’m quite sure that she didn’t own an apron. Usually, I would end up creating a fancy, homemade card for her and my dad and I would take her out somewhere elegant and charming for lunch.
Mother died at a very young age and I still miss her terribly. She was the only person who has ever been totally fascinated by the minutiae of my life and even at this ripe age, there still are so many things that I really would like to talk about with her.
The other mother whom I also miss and with whom I shared a somewhat “fraught” relationship was my mother-in-law. Betty (Bozena) and I viewed each other warily across an enormous divide of history, economics, politics, language and culture. Unlike my comfortable and humdrum southern Ontario upbringing, my husband’s childhood was filled with danger, instability and sheer terror. As a young child in Czechoslovakia, his family lived in a country which, after the Second World War, was under a strict communist regime within the Soviet sphere of influence. The family was split apart by politics. My husband’s father was sent to South America to work, the rest of the family, Betty and the two small children, were kept in Czechoslovakia to prevent him from defecting.
The situation became intolerable and Betty decided to do something about it. This required hiring guides to take her and my husband (then, five years old) and his slightly older sister, across the border into Austria where they would be able to get a plane to South America and rejoin her husband. Things went wrong. The guides were shot and Betty and the two small children found themselves in a small Austrian village lost, hungry and thirsty, trying to find their contact person without drawing attention to themselves.
My husband was not a sentimental man, but one of the few times, I ever heard his voice break was when he told me this story: After wandering around and around for hours, he said, his mother decided to turn herself in because she knew that the children would be taken care of, even if she was arrested and sent back. But, as they were on their way to the police station, the contact person appeared on the street, recognized her and the children and — well, to make a very long story short — eventually the whole family ended up in Canada. Betty was one of the strongest and bravest people that I have ever met. She resisted talking about this period of her life and I regret that I never heard this story from her point of view.
Anyway, here’s to mothers everywhere. And here’s a treat that you might want to make to honour your own mom this Sunday.
Chef John’s Pavlova with Berries
adapted from a recipe on Allrecipes by Chef John
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
3 egg whites, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 tsp white vinegar
2 cups heavy cream
3 tbsp confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pint strawberries, stems removed — or assorted berries
1) Preheat oven to 250 degrees F (120 degrees C).
2) Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper
3) Whisk sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Set aside.
4) Beat egg whites in a bowl until they are foamy and have a thick ribbony texture, 2 – 3 minutes.
5) Pour 1/4 of the sugar mixture into the egg whites; whisk until completely incorporated, about 30 seconds. Repeat for the rest of the sugar mixture, whisking after each addition, until all of the sugar mixture is incorporated and the egg whites are glossy and thick.
5) Pour vanilla and vinegar into egg white mixture; whisk until you can lift your beater or whisk straight up and the egg whites form a sharp peak that hold its shape, 2 – 3 minutes.
6) Spoon egg white mixture onto prepared baking sheet; spread out into a 2 inch high by 6 inch wide disc.
7) Bake in a preheated oven for 1 hour.
8) Turn off the oven, crack open the oven door and let the Pavlova cool for one hour.
9) Whip cream, sugar and vanilla extract in a bowl until soft peaks form, 3 – 4 minutes.
10) Transfer Pavlova to a serving plate. Top with whipped cream and fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwi, whatever.
A bit of lore: a Pavlova is a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova — actually created in New Zealand when she was on a tour. It should have a crisp and crunchy outer shell and a marshmallowy, soft interior.