May 08, 2005

'May 8' more than a mere brunch for mom

It's certainly fitting that this year Mother's Day falls on May 8. Today also is the 60th anniversary of VE day, marking the end of war in Europe.

But our story begins many years before, in France.


During World War I, a mother of a future Iowa Citian lost three sons when Germany invaded France. But her son-in-law, a member of the Presbyterian clergy, survived two years of frontline battles.

His friend, also a minister, traveled to Tahiti to do missionary work. While there, he wrote a book about the history of the missions on that group of islands.

Perhaps more mothers would have lost sons in the Great War if not for the help of other nations. Tahiti and other French Polynesian colonies sent 1,000 men to defend the Allies. When America joined the war, 2.5 million doughboys landed to the cheers of French.

More than 50,000 American mothers lost their sons in France during 1917-1918.


The move to establish Mother's Day as a national holiday in America had been underway for many years before World War I started. President Woodrow Wilson finally proclaimed the second Sunday of May as "Mother's Day" in 1914.

During the 1920s, Mother's Day became a way to honor those women who had lost sons during war. The Society of War Mothers held ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery that drew large audiences, great leaders and front-page headlines.


The Allies' post-war mistakes only fueled German hatred and led to rise of Adolf Hitler. The world soon found itself at war again.

American mothers sent millions of sons and daughters to rescue Western Europe from tyranny. Sixty years ago today in Paris, one French student, who had lost three uncles in the previous war, celebrated the Allied victory at a parade.

When one GI's jeep paused for a second during a procession down the Champs Elysees, that student, Paulene, jumped in.


American mothers also sent their children to Tahiti so it would not fall into Japanese hands. Five-thousand Americans established a supply base there in the verdant paradise that the French painter Paul Gauguin had made famous.


Paulene eventually married and they migrated to America. They settled in Iowa City, where he taught at the university.

She grew to love Iowa's black soil, which reminded her so much of the dirt from the land where she'd grown up. She grew to love the annual corn crop, which she later wrote of in a poem: "Corn grows green/Corn grows gold (echoing) - gold - gold - gold .../In the silence of the plain/between reflecting groves/it whispers its incredible gospel."


By the mid 1970s, Paulene was widowed and retired. She had not become a mother. So she set about traveling the world, seeing all the places she dreamed about as a child back in France.

When arriving in Tahiti, she carried a book, written by her father's friend, and shared it with the local clergy. They celebrated her arrival, showing her around the islands.

And then they asked her if she'd like to adopt a baby.


Paulene accepted their offer. She had wanted to adopt a child for some 20 years.

On Easter 1977, she adopted a three-month-old daughter. They returned to Iowa City, where Paulene discovered first-hand what motherhood means.


Among Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti are those of a mother and child, in which he captures the warmth and tenderness of their bond amid the lush foliage.

Many of his other works showed the affect of missionaries on the island people.

While living on a stipend from a Parisian art dealer, he died at his home 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti - on May 8, 1903.

(originally published May 8, 2005)

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