An ode to my matriarchs, every last one.

Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
May 7 2010 11:20 AM

The Founding Mothers

An ode to my matriarchs, every last one.

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.

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