She could convince the devil to put down its pitchfork; she just had a way about her.
It’s a safe assumption that Satan wouldn’t easily part with his instrument of torment, so it’s also safe to assume that the lady in question must have been powerfully persuasive. That lady was Ann Marie Jarvis. She came by her devil-busting skills honestly. Born in rural Virginia, Jarvis was the daughter of a preacher and never strayed from her Methodist roots. But she was never just a church-goer. If something needed fixing, she set about fixing it. And it was that impulse that made her life so extraordinary.
Ann Marie married in 1850 and with her husband moved to Taylor County deep in the Appalachians. They made a good life for themselves but were by no means immune from the tragedy that hovered over all families—the deaths of their young children. The national infant mortality rate was near 23% and even higher in remote areas like Taylor County where disease and illness exacted a devastating toll on these isolated families. (Of Jarvis’ 13 children, only four would reach adulthood.) Pregnant with her sixth child, she decided to do something about it and used her persuasive skills to found Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. With advice from her physician brother, she put together a program for women in her home town and in four neighboring communities. Riding from town to town, club members taught the importance of personal hygiene, sanitation and the necessity of boiling milk. They also raised money to buy medicine and to hire help for mothers who were themselves disabled by disease. While battling infant mortality, the women were also developing a network that would find the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs playing a role in the Civil War.
Jarvis and her neighbors were Virginians. That is, until the Civil War when Taylor County and the rest of the western region became the new—Union—state of West Virginia. At a time when many—if not most—Americans identified first with their state and then with their country, this was a heart-rending change. In the confusion and acrimony, the first to suffer were wounded Confederate and Union soldiers. Many folks would provide care and comfort for only one side or the other. Jarvis again relied on her persuasive skills and the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs built a consensus that all soldiers would be treated equally—and they were. At war’s end domestic terrorism came to Taylor County. Snipers were targeting returning veterans and civilians who had demonstrated the “wrong” sympathies during the war. Understandably tensions and suspicions ran high. Once more, Jarvis’ persuasive skills rallied the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. They staged a Mothers Friendship Day for the veterans and their families at the county courthouse. The atmosphere was tense as veterans arrived in old uniforms and carrying guns. Jarvis in Confederate gray and a friend in Union blue spoke to the crowd about reconciliation, fellowship and respect. Then the band played Dixie and the Star Spangled Banner. Jarvis quietly persuaded the men to put down their weapons and the band played Auld Lang Syne. Tears flowed freely as animosities subsided. Enemies became neighbors again.
Jarvis is a little known woman from an even less well known place. But she’s emblematic of the thousands of men and women in small places across America who set about binding the nation’s wounds following the Civil War. Their persuasive efforts gave us Memorial Day—a day of reconciliation that reminds us of the high cost of freedom and unity. Let’s keep the day in the spirit Jarvis and others intended. Spare a solemn thought, prayer and moment for those who gave their lives in the service of us all. Make the day more than a picnic. —Ebert