A female parent. A woman in authority. An old or elderly woman. Maternal tenderness or affection. The source or origin. To give birth to, or give rise to. To care or protect like a mother.
If you look in Merriam-Webster’s, there are many definitions of the word ‘mother;’ all but one are complementary. ‘Mother’ refers to nurturing, support, and creation. ‘Mother’ is an idea and an action as much as she is a specific person.
I spent some time looking at our digital collections to see how our archives represent mothers. Some images seem obvious: nuclear families with women holding babies. Even though these images came to us without any labels, we make the assumption that we see a mother holding her child. In life, mothering is more intricate than biology.
When collections of photographs are donated, they come to us in a variety of states. Some are fully described – every archivist’s dream – while others have no information. Sometimes people leave items for us when we are not around, a bag on a chair with no contact information. These situations leave us making our best guesses at what we are seeing, and I am certain that we sometimes miss the mark.
The past is full of complicated family situations. Mothers died in childbirth and their widowers remarried, sometimes even to single sister-in-laws. Maybe what appears to be a biological mother could be an aunt or someone unrelated. A parent secretly raised a child born to one of their unwed daughters. Children were adopted into unrelated families, but remained unaware of their origins even into old age. Families kept birth secrets to the grave. Children without supportive parents in their lives turned to older siblings and other adults for the love and care they needed to thrive. Does this change the name we call the people who nurtured these children through their years? Perhaps some people chose to not take on the title ‘Mother’ when raising a child that wasn’t biologically their own, preferring guardian, foster parent, stepmom, grandmother, auntie, mentor, or some other term, but they still earned the verb form of the word. The labor of love they undertook was mothering.
Being an archivist means describing the materials in our care as accurately as we can. You’ll notice that the titles of the images in this post are vague. We shy away from making assumptions as much as possible. The first image I posted referred to the people pictured as a group, another as a woman and child. It seems like the term ‘family’ was reserved for images where people were physically close; their connections undeniable. We try to keep our descriptions clinical and unbiased, though the images we see evoke memories and associations of our own.
Sometimes members of the community work together to return names and relationships to those pictured. The above image is from a collection of photographs taken at the Tulalip Treaty Day gathering of 1914. In the intervening years since the images entered our care, Tulalip citizens have worked with them to identify numerous attendees. Unfortunately none of the individuals in this image are among the identified, but there is always hope that their stories may be told again some day. Part of working with local history is trying to fill in these gaps. What seems clear from studying this image is that the children here are surrounded by people who are looking after their welfare; they are loved and supported. Mothered.
As alluded to in the Merriam-Webster’s definitions above, sometimes mothers give birth to entities other than children. This image shows the Everett Woman’s Book Club. At the time it was taken all members needed to be married. Undoubtedly many of them, if not most, had raised or were raising children when they posed on the steps of the old Monte Cristo Hotel. At the same time, this group of women founded Everett’s first public library, and many were involved in founding and maintaining its first hospital. Founding Mother is a title that honors the work of women.
While the married women of the Everett Woman’s Book Club were founding Everett’s institutions, unmarried women like Emma Yule were educating Everett’s children. The social rules that kept unmarried women out of the Everett Woman’s Book Club demanded that those who taught the children of those club women remain unwed. Ms. Yule was Everett Public School’s first teacher; she went on to be Principal and even Superintendent of the rapidly-growing school system. She never married and never had children of her own, though she helped guide the upbringing and education of hundreds of Everett’s children during her tenure. Her impact was so great during her time in Everett, that decades later when she passed away in California, she was brought back for burial in Evergreen Cemetery and her former students carried her to her rest.
Some women, like Jennie Samuels, sent children off to war and cared for them when they came home with invisible wounds. Mrs. Samuels not only kept her house running smoothly, her home was the social center for the Black community in Everett in the early-to-mid 1900s. Her Wetmore home was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book as a safe place for Black travelers to stay when in the area. She was a high-ranking member of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs for years, while running her own Nannie Burroughs Study Club in Everett. Both organizations worked toward the advancement of Black causes, and cared for underprivileged members of their communities. Black club women from around the state gathered in her home when she brought their conventions to town, and she was celebrated by her community. Jennie Samuels mothered a community in a way that impacted her whole state.
Whether they are the people who protectively watch over us from the logs as we play our way through childhood, or are a team of people who scramble together a festive party for us when things aren’t quite right, most of us are fortunate to be mothered by many loving souls after the day our mother gives us life.
This weekend we celebrate all mothers who fall under all definitions of the word. Thank you for all that you do for us, no matter how we are related. Thank you for the love, care, and guidance you’ve shown countless children, and our communities. We would be nowhere without mothers.