The Founding Mothers
An ode to my matriarchs, every last one.
At almost three hours, I have reached my great1,944 grandmother, a ropy young woman who fashioned the first-ever musical flutes. She was lame of leg but possessed a keen mind and a strong curiosity. She worked her whole stunted life at fashioning hollow tubes: refining, changing the length and diameter, producing noises that sounded at times laughably like different animals but sometimes quite pleasant. While pregnant with her sixth child, she was caught under a mudslide and suffocated. She was found by boys 32,400 years later with a tiny skeleton inside her skeleton.
After reflecting for six hours, I've reached my great4,320 grandmother, a red-haired woman who was unusually well-liked because of her talent at mediating disagreements. She knew almost every one of the few thousand humans remaining at this bottleneck moment in our species. Her formidable stare and powerfully hushing hands helped tip the balance, allowing us to emerge from the population squeeze.
At the one-day mark I'm thinking about my great17,280 grandmother. As a young girl she watched a rift develop among the adults, and one day the family of her inseparably close childhood girlfriend stomped off beyond the mountain. She never forgot her. As my matriarch died during childbirth at the age of 13 years, she cried through the stabbing pain and thought only of her delicate, kindhearted friend.
Midway through my fourth day of sleepless, unwavering reflection, I reach my great76,923 grandmother, a Homo erectus. She's rapid and hairy and obsessively pilfers the possessions of others. She manages to avoid being ostracized only because she is masterful at setting new trends of fashion: She contrives new ways of decorating her braids, new styles of wrapping pelts, new modes of rubbing sweet saps onto her skin. Others follow her innovation. At 17 she is nicked in the calf by a boar and dies from infection; her mother takes over the care of her two deaf babies.
Two weeks into the project I'm giving consideration to my hunched, hirsute great241,920 grandmother. For most of her life she carries a small, colorful rock and pretends it is others she knows in the group. One day in her ninth year, a male who no one had previously seen is welcomed into the group. Luring her away in the dewy early hours, he places her hand upon his risen appendage. Within moments, he slips it inside her. She exalts in the feeling and spends the rest of her days pursuing males aggressively. She births eight children; three survive, each sired by a different father.
Almost three months after I've begun, I reach a sweet young creature who has only middling talent at competing with other females in the pack. My great1,537,922 grandmother's shining moment comes when she sees a window of opportunity behind a grove of banana trees: He is there, and his female has just been bitten by a small snake and is yowling in pain and scampering down toward the water. My matriarch moves in quickly and allows herself to be impregnated. She gives birth to fraternal twins and lives three more years before ingesting a poisonous mushroom.
Eleven months into the project I've reached my great5,797,443 grandmother, who in her youth breaks her hipbone when lightning strikes her from a boulder. This leaves her with a scarred hide and a strange gait, but she grows to be unusually large and is able to bark with such ferocity that her pack is saved by her on several occasions. Consumed with maternal passion, she nudges her progeny under sheltering branches whenever the skies darken.
Three and a half years after I have begun, my great22,075,801 matriarch is amphibious. Her features are duplicated in thousands like her. She follows the mesmerizing smells to find males in beams of moonlight. She finds irresistible the rush of the cold water after dropping in from the basking-rock, and she enjoys this ritual most of the days of her four years.
Fourteen years into the project, my great88,299,894 grandmother is fully aquatic. She fears creatures that are larger than she is and anything that casts a shadow over the top of her. She is wholly devoted to the coruscating shafts of sunlight that sparkle the murkiness.
Fifty-three years into my reflection, my great334,281,202 ancestral mother is a small sea creature made of millions of cells that respond to chemical threats by shrinking away. When she detects energy sources drifting past, she unlocks her opening and absorbs them to fortify her tiny structure. After several months of this, she deposits a collection of pearly and delicate eggs. Although it seems almost infinitely improbable that my great334,280,913 grandfather would glide by that particular section of underwater volcanic slope, that is precisely what happened. He unburdened himself of sperm and swam forward into the darkness.
I will complete this project 112 years after I have begun: This is when I will reach my great706,406,493 grandmother, the first female in the history of the planet. By a hiccup of mutation, this is the moment when gender splits into being. She is the first to need a partner, to seek another half, to win the yoke of yearning. She desires not an equal but a peer, something familiar but alien, something she does not quite comprehend but which holds her only possibility for future. She is a single cell, as complicated inside as a city. Millions of proteins traffic like worker bees, clustering around a lithe and twisted cord of genetic code. She touches against other cells, shares experience, builds something new. She carries the first draft of a genetic handbook that will pass from female to female in an uninterrupted, invisibly small gift of inheritance.
I am here only because each one of you, without exception, handed down the heirloom. Despite all the accidents and mishaps offered by the world, not one among you failed to mate. You are an unbroken chain of winners, and I exist only as a testament to your successes. Happy Mother's Day, one and all!
Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His book of fiction, Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, was named by Barnes and Noble as a Book of the Year and has just been published in paperback.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.