Carnations, pansies on Mothers DayPublished 11:02am Monday, May 6, 2013
I learned the meaning of Mothers Day the way my father taught most of what I learned from him. Not by lecture, but he demonstrated it by his attitude and behavior.
I could take you to Milwaukee and to the south side of Vienna Street between Sixth and Seventh streets and show you the very spot where I learned. The family-run nursery has been gone for years, but not what I learned there. It was demonstrated by flowers we bought—carnations and pansies.
I wondered why they called this a “nursery” when there were no babies there. Then it occurred to me it was due to the baby flowers. I was rather proud of this reasoning.
It was Sunday morning, and we bought three carnations, one white and two red. The first went into the lapel of my father’s suit, and he pinned the red carnations on my shirt and my younger brother’s. He explained men whose mother had died wear, on Mothers Day, white carnations. Those with mothers still living, as was ours, wear red carnations.
I guessed this might be so because a dead mother’s skin is pale, although I don’t know from where this could have come, because I had never seen a dead mother. I further guessed I was to wear red because a living mother’s skin is flush, although I also hadn’t yet learned this word. I didn’t ask Dad, because why was not as important as what. This is what little boys do. My daddy said so.
What more occupied my mind was a sudden sense of sadness for my father. He no longer had a mommy to say, “Happy Mothers Day.” We did, and we certainly would.
I don’t know where Mom was so we could transact this business without her knowing. It might be she was waiting ahead of us for the Number 37 streetcar at the corner of Eighth Street. We took it to Garfield Avenue and our church. Not every man wore a carnation that Sunday, but most did. I felt informed as I looked around the auditorium. I could tell which men had living mothers and which had lost theirs. Those who did not must have not known what I learned from my father. I explained this to my little brother just as if he were too young to understand Daddy.
During the Sunday school “opening exercises,” when all classes and departments were assembled, they asked the mothers to stand. I suspect we didn’t applaud, because church was not a place where you applauded. You said “Amen” or “Preach it,” but you never clapped. Men could say these things, but not women.
Then they asked the oldest mother to stand, and the Sunday superintendent, Mr. [Bob] Meyer who sold furniture at Sears, presented her with a corsage. It seemed something of a contest. The mothers over fifty years of age stood. When they called for age sixty, most sat down. It was a process of elimination until only one remained standing. Gasps of admiration took the place of applause. One woman, Mrs. Nelson, I think, was so old she won year after year.
When it came to the youngest mother, it seemed it was a different one every year. But they all seemed pretty old to me. Finally, the mother with the greatest number of children was honored. Then and there, this was considered an accomplishment.
On the way home, with Mother going on to put dinner on the table and pretending she didn’t know what was going on, we stopped by the nursery again. We bought flowers not to wear but to plant where Mommy could see them from the kitchen window above the sink. They were pansies. They were pansies, my father explained, because pansies are Mommy’s favorite flower. I sensed, without its needing to be explained, that when you love someone, you give the person his or her favorite.
I also learned — not by being told but shown — that on Mothers Day you do nice things for your mother. You do nice things for Mother not just because it makes her happy, but because it makes me happy. I could see how happy it made Dad—even excited and she wasn’t even his mother.
What makes me most happy on Mothers Day is to see how happy our grown children and our grandchildren are to call Mom and how happy she becomes. I don’t wear any carnation, but pansies are my favorite flower.