The Founding Mothers
An ode to my matriarchs, every last one.
In honor of Mother's Day, I'm going to spend five seconds thinking about each woman in the proud line of matriarchs who brought me here.
My mother left a biology career to become a politician and a painter. She gave up cigarettes in her 30s, shoulders unreconciled issues with her father, and is unable to operate any video player newer than a VCR. The soup cans in her pantry are always in neat alignment. She is tall and striking, and was once cast in a commercial to play Cleopatra.
At the five-second mark I turn to thinking about my maternal grandmother. She became a locally famous grower of roses when her husband invested in oil fields and lost the bet. She died in her late 60s, drifting in a deep dementia and believing that she was standing in the snow-covered barn of her childhood.
At 10 seconds I consider my great-grandmother. Her beauty stopped traffic when she was younger, and she struggled for two-thirds of her life with the slow fading of that power. She wore makeup and expensive clothing and clung through two husbands to the habits of pretty women. She was terrific at playing the harmonica.
My great-great-grandmother (great2 grandmother) was burdened with a tightly twisted temper and a penchant for panic attacks. Her first fiance jilted her. She married the second with an unshakable suspicion, which he was driven to fulfill by infidelity. She lived with hundreds of memories trafficking around inside of her like skittish schools of fish.
My great3 grandmother appeared in the newspapers of her day as a talented long-distance runner. She gave into temptation with her coach, a married man, and bore his daughter. Although their relationship was never exposed, she always treated this child worse than those she bore later; it was the densest representation of her guilt.
At 25 seconds I turn to my great4 grandmother, a lithe woman blessed with tightly curled locks of hair: she grew it long and was recognized by this feature her whole life. Men drowned in her pelagic eyes. After bearing two children she spent the rest of her life in a relationship with an implausibly tall woman. Her whole life she possessed the capacity to laugh so hard that she had to cross her legs tightly to keep from urinating.
By the time I've been thinking about this for five minutes, I arrive at my great60 grandmother, who lived in what we call the Dark Ages. She once spent an afternoon examining a dilapidating Roman aqueduct with her children. First she pointed out the features from a distance, then she helped them run their fingers over the stonework. She explained that there used to be people here before them—before their father's father's father 10 times over—who knew how to make things like this, people who commanded knowledge and symbols and ways of magic that were now lost forever.
At the 17-minute mark I'm considering my great204 grandmother, who lived in a quarrelsome farming village by the Nile. She was spoiled by her brother, who was secretly in love with her and died in a fight that he erroneously believed involved her honor. Being gregarious and invested in social status, she never let anyone know that she suffered terribly with hemorrhoids her whole life.
By the time I've been at this for one hour, I've reached a short woman in the Upper Paleolithic period, my great719 grandmother. She was bitten by a tsetse fly and left for dead, but managed to recover with the help of a young man who had intercourse with her multiple times a day during her sickness, without her participation. She returned home pregnant; her long absence was treated with suspicion. She was eventually accepted into the bottom rungs of a harem and outlived every other wife but one.
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.