Last week was Valentine’s Day, followed closely in Ontario by Family Day, a statutory holiday started by Dalton McGinty as an election promise in 2007 which subsequently became law in 2008. I understand the need for a holiday in February. It’s cold. It’s bleak. It’s months before Easter and award season is over. What is there to look forward to? But who thought up Family Day? I have nothing against families. Several members of my own clan are decent enough people with whom I’m happy to spend a couple hours, but the fact that it follows so closely on the heels of Valentine’s day seems like a double whammy sucker punch for those poor people without sweetheart’s who also happen to be alone in the world. The idea that we should have a holiday to celebrate our family, takes for granted that everyone has one, or that at least everyone has one they wish to celebrate with. If you happen to be unfortunate enough to have neither mother, father, children, or partner the third week of February can make you feel like crap. A quick look at the year 2021 and… yippee, Valentine’s and Family Day are literally a day apart! Perhaps we should rethink mental health month and change it to March.
The whole idea of Family Day confuses me. I presume the theory behind it is that on this particular day we should break our focus from taxes and jobs and school and find time to go skating or play board games with our loved ones. When I was a kid, Family Day was called, Sunday and we did it once a week. We gathered at our grandparent’s dining room, ate them out of house and home, watched a baseball game, argued about religion and/or politics and went for ice cream. We spent a good six hours together and I wouldn’t even say we were particularly close- knit. But it was tradition. It was the punctuation to a long week (if you regarded Sunday as the end of the week and not the beginning, as we did). I know I wasn’t the only one who spent Sunday’s with their grandparents. It seemed pretty much par for the course. On Monday mornings the other kids would invariably talk about Grandmamma’s dry roast or Grandpa’s snoring while Dad drank beer and Mother sipped sherry. So, what happened over the years that made it necessary for us to have a holiday to remind us to spend time with each other? Aftercall, we still have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Sibling Day and Grand Parent’s Day all of which is really just Family Day deconstructed.
I’m not even sure how many people actually celebrate these days, but I’m quite sure that for those who can’t, being alone on these occasions can dredge up feelings of sadness and remorse. The first Mother’s Day after my mom died was a brutal reminder not just of someone I had loved and lost, but also of how I would never be like everyone else again. I had just turned 16 and while my friends regaled me with stories about their mother / daughter dinners or lunches or shopping sprees, I had only memories of tea parties when I was 5. Losing a mother at such a young age is extremely complicated. For starters, no one ever wants to talk to you about it. I’m sure they think it will dredge up awful memories and make you feel bad, but I think there is also a stigma attached that makes them equally uncomfortable. My mother was only 44 when she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Since everyone around me was ill equipped to handle this tragedy or the feelings of a teen age girl, my mother and my feelings, were never ever discussed. Consequently, I spent a good part of my life looking for motherly substitutes with whom I could find the unconditional love that only a mother is able to provide. This pursuit, unfair and unrealistic, always left me disappointed. I have spent a great deal of my life disappointed in women, because of unfair expectations. While some people attribute the lives of their mothers to the person they have become, I acknowledge that it’s my mother’s death, for better or worse, that has contributed to the person I am. A motherless child. A motherless daughter. Move along folks, not much to celebrate here.
My 16th year was brutal. As if things weren’t bad enough, I was a new kid in a new school with very few friends and no drama club to save me. I had done grades 9 and 10 at an all girl’s Academy and switched to a public co-ed high school to feel less awkward around boys. Not only were boys new to me, but I found the majority of them somewhat intolerable. What they thought of me, I can’t imagine. In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more of a nerd and less desirable than I was in grade 11. President of my class, I used words like, ‘morbific’ and ‘pusillanimous’. I once attended a pool party and sat in the corner reading War and Peace. My hair was always frizzy. I had no fashion sense and I liked jazz, classical music and figure skating. In every sense of the word I was weird, and now I had no mother to help me navigate my way through puberty. Thank God, there was no social media back then to make me feel worse about my predicament. My father always said, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” But in my journal from that year I wrote: “… by the time a boy finds out what I’m like on the inside, he’s already found a girl who is beautiful on the outside.”
Help came from, of all things, a boy in my advanced English class who I did not like. Tim and I had spent the better part of the year sparring and now I had to sit next to him – worst -work with him on assignments in advanced English. He found everything I said contentious or amusing and took to calling me nicknames, and poking fun. He infuriated me, but somehow throughout the course of a semester I discovered that he too had lost a parent. This little piece of information became the glue that bonded us together. He was popular and well-adjusted and in later life became a minister, which seemed absolutely appropriate as he was lovingly referred to as “Rev” by everyone in school. We formed a friendship out of something no one else could understand, and for the better part of a year shared our fears, our insecurities, our love for theatre and musicals, and eventually letters when he moved away to do an exchange program in Sweden. I still think of him on Mother and Father and Family days. He saved me from feeling like a circus freak at a very vulnerable time in my life. And for that I will always be grateful.
In truth, Mother’s Day was actually started by Anna Reeves Jarvis in 1908 as a memorial ceremony to her own mother who had died three years earlier. It was quickly adopted and commercialized much to Anna’s chagrin. Her negative opinion of these commercial forces was evident when she said:
A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.
A pretty sentiment, Indeed. Anna Reeves efforts to hold on to the original meaning of the day led to her own economic hardship. While others profited from Mother’s Day, Jarvis did not, and she spent the later years of her life with her sister Lillie. In 1943, she began organizing a petition to rescind Mother's Day. However, these efforts were halted when she was placed in the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The bills for her treatment were paid for by the floral and greeting card industry who had profited so much from the day she had made significant.
I still think Family Day is weird and the fact that it is followed so closely on the heels of Valentine’s Day is, let’s be honest, kind of thoughtless. I take my hat off to those people who take advantage of the day to make the extra effort to acknowledge their great fortune at having a family to enjoy things with. But, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to consider the feelings of others on these familial days and acknowledge not with pity, but with a certain amount of understanding, that not everyone has someone they can celebrate with.