8 of History’s Greatest Tributes to Mothers

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A card and a bouquet of flowers simply weren’t enough for some of history’s biggest names. To show their love for mom, they dedicated songs, memorials, and even entire cities to the ones who brought them into the world. Here are a few notable examples.


When archaeologists uncovered the tomb of Akhet-Hetep, a high priest who lived in Giza during Egypt’s fifth dynasty (around 2500 BCE), they discovered, along with the usual funerary arrangements, a memorial to his mother, Peseshet, who was probably one of the world’s first known female physicians. Ancient Egyptians were notable for their gender egalitarianism, meaning Peseshet would have been far from the only female doctor during the time period. But her title as “Overseer of Women Physicians” indicates she was highly skilled and respected by many, including her son.


Following the death of a friend in 1856, the renowned composer began to conceptualize a large, sweeping requiem in German. But it wasn’t until the death of his mother, Johanna, in 1865 that he began working on the piece in earnest. Composed of seven movements and incorporating chorus, orchestra, and baritone and soprano soloists, “Requiem” has been called a consolation piece about death and grieving that also manages to be light, and even joyous. It’s one of Brahms’s defining works, and a fine tribute to his mother.


She started out as a stabularia (which probably means barmaid, since inns and taverns were often found next to stables), and ended up First Lady of the Roman Empire. Helena and her son Constantine had a close relationship, and after he became emperor he showered her with land, title, and wealth. He also named a couple cities after her, including her birthplace, Drepanum, a town in Asia Minor which he renamed Helenopolis. A devout follower of Christianity, Helena would make a pilgrimage to the holy land, where she claimed to find pieces of the true cross. After her death, the Catholic Church made her a saint.


Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871) / Wikimedia Commons 

Born in America, James Abbott McNeill Whistler spent much of his career in Europe, where he enjoyed the fast life of an artist bon vivant. But when his stern, very pious mother Anna came to live with him in London, he reverted to the role of dutiful son (he kicked his girlfriend out of his flat, for starters). His controlled, respectful portrait of Anna, officially titled Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, was a formal exercise that became a symbol of maternal devotion and steadfastness known the world over. Debuting to mixed reviews, it would be bought for the Musée de Luxembourg before transferring to the Louvre; 30 years ago, it moved to the Musée d’Orsay, where it appears today.


In 1908, West Virginian Anna Jarvis organized a celebration at her local church in memory of her mother, Ann Jarvis, who had served as a nurse during the Civil War. Jarvis lobbied for Mother’s Day to be recognized as a national holiday, and maintained that it should be “a day of sentiment, not profit” where children would spend time with their mothers. The holiday became official, but Jarvis became so disgusted by the commercial nature of Mother’s Day that she tried to abolish it.

6. “LET IT BE”

During a particularly stressful period in 1968 when The Beatles were on the verge of dissolving, Paul McCartney had a dream. In it, his mother, Mary, who died when he was just 14, came to him and told him that everything would be alright. “Let it be,” she said. The next day, McCartney sat down at the piano, and ended up with one of the band’s biggest (and last) hits. Many see religious meaning in the song, and believe “Mother Mary” refers to the Virgin Mary. McCartney, for his part, welcomes all interpretations, but has maintained his story and his devotion to his mother. When a fan on his website asked what he’d do if he had a time machine, McCartney wrote: “Go back and spend time with my mum.”


The Emperor Qianlong of China considered his mother, the Empress Dowager Chongqing, to be a trusted friend and advisor. So on her 60th birthday in 1753, he commissioned several additions to the Summer Palace outside Beijing, including the building of a new lake and the construction of the Hall of Joyful Longevity, which would serve for years as the residence for any royalty visiting the picturesque collection of temples, gardens, and lakes. The emperor also threw a blowout birthday party for the empress, complete with poetry readings, animal sacrifices, and banners decorating the road from Beijing to the Summer Palace.


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Former NBA big man Dikembe Mutombo was stingy around the basket as one of the league’s most formidable shot blockers. But off the court, he generously gave to his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. In 2007, he opened a $29 million state-of-the art hospital named for his mother, Biamba Marie Mutombo, just outside the capital Kinshasa, in an area riddled with poverty. A local physician called it a “jewel” for residents, including the nearly half a million children under 5 who died each year of preventable causes. Honoring his mother at the hospital’s opening, Mutombo said, “She always wanted us to do the best we could to serve others.”