In Honor of Mothers Who Left Us Too Soon


Two years ago, I wrote about my grandmother Hellen Scheer’s first Mother’s Day in 1939, after the birth of her daughter, my mother Marie. Last year, Mom died just days before Mother’s Day. It was unexpected and sent my siblings and myself reeling. She left us too soon.

Since 2014, when I started writing Reminisce, I have been intrigued by newspaper articles about families where the mother died leaving young children. What happened to them? Was an aunt, grandmother, or young neighbor able to step in and care for them? Were the siblings divided among various extended family or neighbors? Or, was there no option but to relinquish them to a state-run facility? After a brief look at the history of this holiday, I’ll share what I have learned.

Mother’s Day History

Celebrations of mothers and motherhood are traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who held festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. Mother’s Day became an official U.S. holiday through the efforts of Anna M. Jarvis.

When Jarvis was a young child, her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis had cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the field during the Civil War. In 1868, Ann Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” the goal of which was to foster reconciliation between former Union and Confederate soldiers by having them come together along with mothers from both sides.

Jarvis was proud of her mom and, after her death in 1906, wanted to celebrate all mothers and the sacrifices they made for their children.  She organized the first celebration of this holiday in 1908 in their hometown of Grafton, West Virginia. Over the next few years, Jarvis pushed to have the holiday officially recognized, and it was celebrated increasingly in more and more states around the U.S.   In fact, it was celebrated in Deer River. “In honor of dear old mother, the state of Minnesota has set aside a day when the nation can sing and speak praises to her loving life and revered soul. The day is tomorrow May 14.”  [Itasca News 5-13-1911]

Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day an official holiday to take place the second Sunday of May. In it Wilson declared the first national Mother’s Day as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.” [Mother’s Day: Topics in Chronicling America, Library of Congress]

For those of you wondering why Mother’s Day has the apostrophe where it does, Grammarly, the grammar application I use, has the answer. “Anna Jarvis put Mother’s Day on the calendar as a day dedicated to expressing love and gratitude to mothers, acknowledging the sacrifices women make for their children. That’s why Ann Jarvis was determined to keep ‘Mother’s’ a singular possessive, as marked by the apostrophe before ‘s.’ Each family should celebrate its own mother, so that individual women across the country could feel the love, even in the midst of a broad celebration of motherhood.” [grammarlyblog]

Jarvis was pleased with her efforts until Mother’s Day became more commercialized.  She had envisioned it as a day of celebration between mothers and families. “Her personal version of the day involved wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting one’s mother or attending church services. But once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it was not long before florists, card companies and other merchants capitalized on its popularity. Jarvis, who died in 1948, had since the 1930s actively lobbied the government to remove it from the U.S. holiday calendar.”  []

A Dozen White Carnations

“Tomorrow, May 11th is Mother’s Day.  A pink carnation in respect to the living mothers, and a white carnation for the memory of those departed.” [Itasca News 5-10-1919]

The file I began in 2014 now contains exactly a dozen local stories about children who lost their mothers when they were young. This is what I know of each situation.

1902 ~ Mrs. John (Anna) Nyberg died. It is hard to determine who raised the six daughters, Hulda 13, Anna 11, Jennie 9, Agnes 9, Helmar 5, and Selma 2. It appears they remained in the community.

1903 ~ Mrs. Charles (Mary Olson) Sterling died and left behind a 15-month-old child. Charlie Sterling married a widow with two children 2½ months later.

1909 ~ Mrs. John (Rosina) Tremain died from blood poisoning that she had suffered since the birth of her last baby two months earlier. Sons are Valentine, John, William, L.J. and Arthur. Daughters are Evaline and Goldie. [These names were found in their father’s 1929 obituary.] Shortly after Rosina’s death, the three youngest were taken to Minneapolis by Agent E.P. Savage of the State Children’s Home Society.

1910 ~ Mrs. John (Karolina Nyberg) Hedquist died of typhoid fever. Her four children, Emma 6, Alton 4, Della 2, and Myrtle, an infant were raised by their father.

1911 ~ Mrs. Sereno (Ina) White died giving birth to her seventh child, Rueben Asa.  The other children were, Lesley 12, Lloyd 11, Gladys 9, Alice 7, Clifford 3, and Earl 2. The baby and Earl were raised by relatives. The five other children were placed in state run facilities.

1912 ~ Mrs. Charles (Mary Olsen) Lind died of tuberculosis. She is the mother of six children, Ida 17, Elmer 15, Frank 12, Clara 12, Ellen 5, and Emma 5.  The two sets of twins were placed in state run facilities.

1916 ~ Mrs. Hilmer (Karen Nelson) Hanson died during the birth of twin daughters Hildur and Karen Marie. Hilmer and daughter Clara 14, raised them and the boys, Guy 5 and Perry 2.

1921 ~ Mrs. Simon (Marian Root) Pettit died of tuberculosis, leaving James 16, Ethel 15, Dora 10 and Myrtle 9. It appears that the children moved to Todd County where their Root relatives lived.

1922 ~ Mrs. Carl (Signa) Carlsberg died of heart disease.  Ray 15, Freida 13, Alford 10, Gustav 9, Elvin 6, Glen 5, Earl 4, and Eunice 2. The family remained together with Freida taking responsibility for the children.

1922 ~ Mrs. Ed (Irene Vance) Voigt is believed to have died from heart disease.  Ed’s sister Rose took the baby, Grace, to raise as her own. Margaret 5, and Alice 3, went with their father and his family to Polson, Montana.

1927 ~ Mrs. William (Mary Peterson) Murphy died of peritonitis. Her children were Vera 17, William 9, James 6, Della 3, and George 21 months.  The four youngest lived with neighbors Ed and Hattie Sargent until they were old enough to return to their father.

1927 ~ Mrs. Thomas Jones died of diphtheria, leaving eight children. Because her husband was in prison, the care of the children’s welfare was placed in the hands of the Judge of Probate, Mrs. Rhoda McCullough. All of the children were placed in the state school at Owatonna.

There were sixty-six children in the dozen families. About a third, those who were sent to state facilities such as the Minnesota State Public School for Neglected and Dependent Children in Owatonna, never had the love of a mother figure again and in many cases, they were the youngest children. I do hope they were able to form relationships with some caregivers and were able to provide a nurturing home for their own children. 

I do know that the White siblings, whose mother died in 1911, did reunite in the 1940s. I posted their story, first published in April 2017, on my blog last Sunday. If you know the “rest of the story,” for any of the other individuals, please share ~ 218-244-2127 or leave a message on my blog chrismarcottewrites. 

We grieve in many ways.  This past year, when I finally could write again, I wrote about Mom.  Mostly for myself, but occasionally I’d share a piece with a friend.  My sisters are not quite ready yet to read anything about Mom, and I understand that.  I found out just last week that Talking Stick, a respected Minnesota literary journal has selected an essay I wrote about my mom for publication in September. On Mother’s Day I will share a bouquet of white carnations with grieving sons and daughters.


  1. youngv2015 says:

    This was a very moving piece. It made me think about many of my ancestors who lost one or both of their parents while they were still children. Many times this caused the family to split up because there were no government safety nets to help keep the families together.
    Happy Mother’s Day.


    1. cmarcotte58 says:

      Thank you Vickie! I am hoping to learn from readers that some of the separated families were reunited.


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