Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Mother's Day, May 9Th. I used to love that day when I was a child. Mainly, because for me it was a day of atonement. In one day I could wipe out all the sins of my childish bad behavior for the year. The behavior I knew hurt my mother, which never-the-less as a child and then teenager, was the necessary growing process for our species. If children (especially teenagers) did not, parents would never let them go into the world. And, so for me, I could one day a year make my mother understand what she "really" meant to me. And then, my sins of the past year were once again wiped clean.

Then suddenly, without warning time stopped and Mother's Day took on a whole new meaning. My mother died. She died the last day of the first month into the New Year. There were no more Mother's Day-of Atonement for me to embrace. Just an empty hollow place, a deep, deep chasm into a heart that ached.

The history of Mother's Day is really quite interesting. Started by a woman named Ann Jarvis, the first unofficial Mother’s Day was begun as a way of healing the pain of the Civil War. Mrs. Jarvis devoted her life to procuring the event as a national holiday. The first official Mother’s Day was held in 1908 at Andrews Methodist Church with over four hundred in attendance. Ann Jarvis sent five hundred white carnations to be worn by those attending the service. The idea was so well received, by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day should be celebrated the second Sunday in May, a national holiday.

We tend to think of lighthouses in terms of their "male connection". Perhaps, it is because traditionally the history of lighthouses has been written primarily by men. Yet, history as another story to tell. And, this is what happened at one lighthouse, written down in the log books of the Marblehead Lighthouse.

Edward Herman was transferred to the Marblehead Lighthouse October, 1913. This was his first year at a lighthouse far from his family and his own mother. It was a time to learn the routine for the new lighthouse and that also meant getting to know his new head keeper, Charles Hunter.

Charles Hunter's mother arrived in Marblehead shortly after he began his new duties in 1903. This lighthouse was different. Women, not men were the history of its soul. In fact, the very first woman of the Great Lakes to tend a light was the widow of keeper Wolcott,the first lighthouse keeper. Her name was Rachel Wolcott. That happened almost one hundred years before Charles Hunter arrived.

History did not end with her death. Keeper George McGee began serving at the lighthouse in 1873, his wife Johanna was his unpaid assistant. He was a faithful keeper with an untimely death. At the age of 45 years keeper McGee died. Now, there was no keeper. Yet, the light did not die with his sudden death. Why? Because a woman, his spouse kept it going. She buried her husband, tended to her family-yes, she had children, young children and she never, never failed the vessels of the inland seas. On her unofficial watch, the light remained to guide.

Johanna McGee was appointed the lighthouse keeper on July 8, 1896, the same year her husband died. When Charles Hunter arrived on March 16, 1903 she had tended the light, the grounds, the keeper's residence and her family for 30 years. She was the " Good Mother".

So, when Charles Hunter brought his mother to live at the light, the people of Marblehead were already accustomed to women who were "mothers" at the lighthouse.

The year of 1914 witnessed two "firsts" at the Marblehead Lighthouse-the beginning of the last lighthouse keeper's duties and the beginning of a new national holiday. And, something else happened. The "Good Mother" embraced her children once again. Who would have known her influence or her guidance might still be a presence in the lives of a people? But it was and this is what happened that first May, 1914.

Assistant keeper Edward Herman learned the month of May at the new lighthouse meant the beginning of an endless round of painting and whitewashing. The tasks kept the keepers busy all through the summer months into early fall. May this year of 1914 also meant a new national celebration. Mother’s Day was now an official American holiday.

They were not prepared for the events. It seemed an ordinary Sunday until they began to arrive. Dozens of them, families old and young. Women with children, women without children, women who had lost mothers, women who were mothers came. Groups of tourists celebrating the first National Mother’s Day arrived at the lighthouse, beginning a tradition that continued for the next thirty years. Only war and the closing of the lighthouse grounds to the public interrupted the yearly event.

It must have been a difficult holiday for Keeper Hunter to record in the logbooks. His mother, Jane Hunter, had only been dead for twenty months.

The month of May and the new national holiday welcomed not only the arrival of tourists, but also a new life saving boat. As the navigation season began to witness increasing ship traffic, the new life saving boat was soon put to use. Edward’s ability to perform rescues was given an early baptism when a launch went ashore near the lighthouse. Unlike the Buffalo shoreline, Marblehead peninsula was jutted with rocky out cropping, making it difficult to get from the shore to the boat. In good weather, the rock posed a hazard from the constant wave action. In bad weather, the rocks not only were wet, they were slippery and rough waves made launching any vessel difficult. The "Good Mother", now had a new boat and in honor of her new holiday, was saving the life of sailors.

After the Mother’s Day holiday, the routine of painting began in earnest. The lantern room was painted followed by the watch room. Both activities took up most of the month. When the light tower was completed the wooden flagpole was painted, and if needed, the keepers were responsible for making a new pole. Even the essential wheelbarrow was dutifully painted. Life, it seems went on, for those who had lost a mother and those who had a mother far away.

When I read the log books, I was moved by how drawn the people of Marblehead were to the lighthouse on Mother's Day. Every year the numbers increased so that keeper Herman recorded many years later, "crowds of tourists at the lighthouse on Mother's Day". He had given up counting their numbers.

There have been other "Good Mothers". Ida Lewis is perhaps the most famous. In a path of unlikely history, I am connected to this "Good Mother". The year keeper Edward was born, Ida was making the news. The New York Times ran an article begging the government, Congress, to give keeper Lewis a pension. She was still serving at the lighthouse "all by herself", the article reported.

Ida, it seems had a father who was a captain in the Revenue Cutter Service. She was no stranger to the perils of the seas. Edward also served in the Revenue Cutter Service. Ida served the Lime Rock Lighthouse.

Until this week, I never realized the connection. Lime Rock is located in New Port, Rhode Island. I was born in New Port not far from the lighthouse Ida Lewis faithfully served. In fact, I realized I was born surrounded by lights. All, the "Good Mothers" to guide me on life's journey. I never knew this, until now, more then half a century after my birth.

The "Good Mother", she has been there with me and for me and a sentinel since the day I first entered this world. This weekend I am going to be at the National Archives in Washington D.C. surrounded by all the history of the "Good Mothers". And, this year May 9Th will be different. Like the lighthouse keepers, the "busy-ness" of everyday life must go on, even if it means painting the lowly wheelbarrow.

And, this year, I realize I have found myself not mourning the loss of a mother after so many years, but celebrating the discovery of the all the "Good Mothers" I never knew were a part of my life. Yes, May 9Th, Mother's Day, is both a celebration and a healing of pain. Thank you for being my light.

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