Sunday May 8, 2016

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My New, Funny Old Mother

Will I ever be as funny as my mother at ninety?
I hope so, for everyone’s sake, especially mine.
This woman, who swims, learns Spanish, cooks for herself,
and works Thursdays at the library — this very Mother —
burps after every bite, wets her pants, washes them,
sports a hearing aid that screeches carols,
and says, “Whatever!” to whatever happens,
when in the past she didn’t trust much good
would come of anything, or anyone,
and often pointed to what wasn’t working
to preserve her worried soul from what could soon go wrong.
When we said, “See you in the morning, Mom!”
she said, “We’ll see about that!”
But now she says, “That would be nice.”
Relieved of my dreams of perfection, I can’t stop laughing,
gently, softly, when her hearing aid syncopates her burps,
and she asks, “What? What’s so funny?” — giggling —
because she knows I love her as she is.
No changes needed. Nothing to fix.
“See,” she says, “I told you. Everything’s fine.”

“My New, Funny Old Mother” by Freya Manfred from Speak, Mother. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015.  (buy now)

It's the second Sunday in May, which is Mother's Day here in the United States. It's Mother's Day in other countries, too, including Denmark, Italy, Venezuela, Turkey, Australia, and Japan.

A woman named Anna Jarvis was the person behind the official establishment of Mother's Day. Her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, had a similar idea, and in 1905 the daughter swore at her mother's grave to dedicate her life to the project. She campaigned tirelessly for the holiday. In 1907, she passed out 500 white carnations at her mother's church, St. Andrew's Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia — one for each mother in the congregation. In 1912, West Virginia became the first state to adopt an official Mother's Day, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday.

Anna Jarvis became increasingly concerned over the commercialization of Mother's Day. She said, "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She was against the selling of flowers, and she called greeting cards "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write." Nevertheless, Mother's Day has become one of the best days of the year for florists. When Anna Jarvis lived the last years of her life in nursing home without a penny to her name, her bills were paid, unbeknownst to her, by the Florist's Exchange.

Today is the birthday of literary and social critic and all-around “man of letters” Edmund Wilson (books by this author), born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1895. He didn’t like to be called a critic; he thought of himself as a journalist. He had a decent, if brief, editorial career in the 1920s, at Vanity Fair and The New Republic, and later was a book reviewer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Wilson could be very opinionated; he liked what he liked, and he didn’t pretend to be interested in things that bored him. “I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote inThe New Yorker in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through Don Quixote.” He wasn’t interested in literary criticism for its own sake — he especially hated academics and their obsessive “close readings” — but he was an influential literary critic all the same. He wrote criticism from the point of view of a writer, and some of his essays on writers like Dickens, Kipling, Pushkin, and Flaubert changed public perception of their work.

His dream for many years was to do away with American literary provincialism, and he had hoped to see American writers reach the level of respect their European counterparts received. By the mid-1940s, he had stopped believing in his country’s bright literary future, especially after the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. He blamed the corrupting influence of Hollywood and publisher Henry Luce. Wilson gave up on literature and turned back to journalism, usually choosing to write about obscure or forgotten subjects.

He didn’t file his income tax returns for nine years, from 1946 to 1955. In his book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1963), he admits that it was mostly a careless oversight on his part: “I thought that this obligation could always be attended to later. I had no idea at that time of how heavy our taxation had become or of the severity of the penalties exacted for not filing tax returns.” He makes his battle with the Internal Revenue Service into the occasion for a closer examination into the federal budget, and ends in an attempt to spin it as a conscious protest against the Cold War. The IRS wanted $69,000, but they settled for $25,000 and no jail time.

Later in life, he began work on what would become his seven-volume autobiography. He modeled it after Casanova’s extensive Story of My Life, and while Casanova’s memoirs read as literature, Wilson’s read like the disorganized notebook entries that served as his chief source.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®