I thought long and hard on what I could present to this group of well-informed and clever people. What was it that I wanted to say? In keeping with my modus operandi, I knew that I needed to combine my cultural heritage with my love for all things Austen; and so, I looked to the calendar and found my mark. It’s May, and here in the United States, we just celebrated Mother’s Day—but not so in other parts of the world. Let me persuade you to take a turn about the globe with me. It’s so refreshing!
Naturally, I will begin in England! Jane Austen would have been familiar with the festive occasion known as Mothering Sunday. Usually occurring during the season of Lent, it was a day for church, as well as acknowledging one’s matriarch. Even servants were given the day off, so that they could visit with their own mothers and perhaps share a token of their love. I did a little research on Jane Austen’s mother and found that Mrs. Austen was considered witty and quite talented herself with a quill and a bit of foolscap. Now, we all know that the Rev. Austen supported his daughter’s love for reading and writing. However, it appears that Jane might have inherited her talents from her mother. I can easily imagine Mothering Sunday in the Austen household. After church, our dear girl would very likely read from her latest scribblings to honor her mother. Then perhaps, they would have tea with iced cakes or some such. They certainly didn’t head out for brunch or to the nearest salon for a mani-pedi!
In the United States of America, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. Today, it is considered a secular holiday; but when first established by Anna Jarvis on May 10, 1908, it was celebrated during church services—at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, to be exact. I read that Jarvis was critical of the commercialization that quickly took over the occasion and continued to encourage all to reflect upon and honor the important contributions of mothers.
In my native country of Argentina—where Catholicism is the State religion—Mother’s Day originally coincided with the Feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated in October. The feast day was later moved to January, which coincided with summer picnics and family gatherings at the beach. Argentinians, however, decided that Mother’s Day would continue to be celebrated on the third Sunday of October. Needless to say, there is a plethora of spring flowers, cards and gifts to help celebrate the occasion.
In Israel, the commemoration of Mother’s Day came along with its own brand of controversy. It all began when the newly founded country couldn’t decide on which day to celebrate the occasion! The Ezra Society, headed by Sarah Herzog, the mother of then-president Chaim Herzog, established the first Mother’s Day on April 6, 1947. However, the city of Haifa initiated its own version when the mayor proposed that the day be linked to the Maccabean matriarch, Hannah. Hannah is a heroine in the story of Hanukkah; therefore, the city celebrated Mother’s Day for many years during this festive season (which usually falls somewhere around December). Towards the end of 1951, the newspaper Ha’aretz Shelanu declared its own Mother’s Day initiative—perhaps hoping to settle the issue definitively. The editors asked its young readers to suggest a date to honor all Israeli mothers.
Side Note: Sorry! My mind took an unexpected detour. I was suddenly reminded of two other times when young writers responded to newspaper editorials. In October 1860, eleven-year-old Grace Bedell of Westfield, New York, wrote to presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. She urged Mr. Lincoln to grow a beard because “all the ladies like whiskers” and believed he would have a better chance at winning the election! In 1897, eight-year-old, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to The Sun and asked whether Santa Claus was real. The newspaper’s response was published anonymously in September of that year. Due to its popularity, it was republished every year during the Christmas season until 1950, when the paper ceased publication. Now back to my story in Israel…
Eleven-year-old Nechama Frankel, responded to the newspaper query and suggested a date to honor the memory of Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah. Although childless, Szold had run an organization that rescued 30,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe. The suggestion was easily accepted; but on a final note, Mother’s Day recently became known as Family Day. At 72 years of age, Nechama Frankel (now Biedermann) didn’t appreciate the change in the name and wrote her local newspaper—again! She asked that the “lost dignity of Mother’s Day be restored.” Sounds very much like her American counterpart, Anna Jarvis, don’t you think?
All these meanderings have brought me to this point: Words have the power to effect change, to stir passions, and to alter the paths of women and men who otherwise might not take action. The importance of a well-written missive is not lost on us Janeites, whether it comes from a loved one across the ocean or a gentleman across the room.
My own mother, of blessed memory, wrote more letters than I can recall. They crossed back and forth from Argentina to our home here in the United States. They were filled with every possible emotion, from the simplest piece of gossip to the greatest despair. But these letters kept us united with our family half way around the world and that was her life-long goal. I am grateful to my mother for the many lessons she taught me. I miss her, and think of her, every. single. day.
In my novel, Celestial Persuasion, Miss Abigail Isaacs also receives a life-altering communication. I hope you enjoy the following excerpt. I’ll sign off now with an amended version of my mother’s famous salutation: With Love, A Jewish Regency Author
“Might you share the letter?” Mrs. Dashwood enquired. Long accustomed to having her young friend’s housekeeper-cum-companion present in times such as these, she handed Mrs. Frankel some tea and cake.
Abigail nodded slowly and proceeded to read her letter aloud. She had no wish to hide the contents of Captain Wentworth’s message; and in fact, she was curious to hear the ladies’ opinions. “And there you have it. Papa and Jonathan are gone from this world.”
“Whatever shall you do?” Mrs. Dashwood asked.
“I am a woman alone, with little means of support and head full of impractical aspirations. In truth, I have no idea at present.”
“You might do well to follow Jonathan’s example,” murmured Mrs. Frankel, setting down her plate of seed cake. “You might apply to the Royal Navy.”
“Never say so!” Mrs. Dashwood cried. “Has the Crown gone through all our fine men and boys, that we are now enlisting young ladies to battle the French?”
“No, no.” Abigail shook her head in gentle reproach. Mrs. Frankel ought to have known better than to mention such a radical scheme.
“For some time now, Miss Isaacs and I have been following the news of an extraordinary woman by the name of Mary Edwards,” Mrs. Frankel, now a little recovered, continued unabashed. “The London paper had a full story on her work as a computor for the British Nautical Almanac. She is one of a very few women paid by the Board of Longitude.”
“But what is her work?” insisted Mrs. Dashwood.
“It is rather intriguing,” supplied the housekeeper. “With her mathematical talent and computational skills, she is tasked to calculate the position of the sun, moon, and planets at various times of day. I have no doubt that our dear girl could do the same.”
“Whatever for? I am sure I have never heard of such a thing!”
However sensible Abigail was to her own sad mental state, it did not follow that the dear lady ought to be left to feel bewildered, so she provided further explanation.
“They use the information for nautical almanacs, Mrs. Dashwood. According to The Times, Mr. Edwards took on piecework to supplement the family’s income. After his death, it was revealed that Mrs. Edwards had done most of the calculations. It all came out into the open when she asked that they continue supplying her with work. She had to support herself and her daughters, you see, and they happily complied. This is what Mrs. Frankel was referring to when she suggested that I apply to the Royal Navy.” Abigail saw at once that her friend was aghast at the mere suggestion and waited patiently for her reply.
“I have always thought your education seemed rather …excessive,” offered Mrs. Dashwood. “As your poor mother was no longer with us and able to voice her concerns, I daresay your father was pleased to provide you any pleasure.”
Abigail smiled at the memory of her father’s affection and shrugged her acquiescence.
“You were the light of his life, and I told him so many a time. He was quite amused at my observations and went so far as to explain that your name, Avigail, means a father’s joy in the language of your ancestors. I must say, my dear, they chose your name wisely.”
“Avigail Yehudit—such noble names!” Mrs. Frankel exclaimed. “Such fine examples of female wisdom and valor.”
“Papa prevailed with his first choice,” said Abigail, “but Mama was appeased with the second. Judith was her favorite biblical heroine— or so I have been told. But it was all for naught, for Jonathan had wished for a brother and thought the names too feminine! I simply became Avi to him. But it is of no consequence. Whichever name I choose, be it the English version or that of my ancestors, Isaacs will remain the same.”
Mrs. Dashwood would not have any of it. “But my dear, you are young yet. Might you not consider marriage? Mr. Green has shown great interest in you…”
“Mr. Green, ma’am, is a widower with three children. His only interest in me is knowing that I would make a proper physician’s wife, and I have begun to believe that I am not meant for love. I am intelligent and have received an excellent education, thanks to my doting father and my…my brother’s enthusiasm.” Abigail paused and sipped her now-tepid tea while she attempted to compose herself.
“You might apply to Sarah Guppy and ask for her advice,” Mrs. Frankel insisted. “She too has worked for the Royal Navy. You have yourself informed me of her numerous creations and inventions. Of course, the patents were secured through her husband—”
“My dear…” Mrs. Dashwood set down her tea things with trembling hands.
“Pray forgive Mrs. Frankel. I believe she is merely attempting to call my attention to various alternatives, unconventional though they might be,” Abigail quickly added. “In truth, ma’am, the day’s events have taken their toll. I am pained knowing that Jonathan will not return to us. He was my beloved brother, but he was also my partner, my teacher and confidant. My friends, I am lost. I am drifting at sea without the North Star to guide me.”
“Might you not receive a pension for your poor brother’s service? What would your good mother have thought?”