Ten years ago I was standing in the cold waiting for a bus home from grad school when I answered that most dreaded of phone calls: “This is dad. Your mom’s in the hospital. Some kind of brain bleed. Not sure she’ll make it.”
And we huddled together in a waiting room praying through seven hours of surgery on what doctors called “a massive hemorrhage.” When she woke up and opened her eyes and knew us they called it “only a miracle.” But we soon discovered she had what she would later call “her new brain.” Both her balance and short term memory were gone, so she kept trying to stand up, then would collapse on the floor, then try again ten minutes later. When I arrived she greeted me with a saggy half-numb-faced smile and asked if she could cook me dinner. Lost in time and space, she was still trying to be my mother.
When I rose to say goodbye she paused and asked sweetly, “Now what were we doing — were we going to pray?” We were not, and this was not something my family usually did, but she seemed perfectly at ease lying there with her newly twitching leg under the hospital sheet and newly shaking hand wrapped neatly in the wrinkles of her other hand, and my own hands wrapped around them both. She began. “Lord, bless Chrissy. And Dan.” She named her children, then her grandchildren, then friends, and then without waiting for me to say anything she closed abruptly: “And Lord, save many people. Amen.”
As I opened my eyes I nearly laughed at the absurdity — she had not prayed for herself. She was the reason we were in the hospital, but she had no idea. With all awareness stripped away, deep underneath she was still a mother offering to feed her children, blessing her children, blessing many people.
But as I drove home, I felt the deep sorrow settle in. When she could not be my mother, who would? What would happen when she realized she was the one being cared for now?
That same week I watched a documentary about elephants. The elephants lived in a part of Africa with dry seasons, and they crossed many miles of desert to find water each year. The narrator explained that the oldest female, the matriarch, leads the journey. She guides them across the indecipherable sameness of drought and thirst to a place they have come before, sometimes many years prior, to a place where water lies deep in the sand. The documentary said no one knows what guides her — does she remember in her mind or her bones or her soul? — but she knows, and she believes, and she leads them as they dig long through the night, noses truffling and feet kicking in the sand to make a hole where at last the water pools and they drink together. And the herd lives on.
And then I remember that the narrator asked a question: what if the matriarch dies?
This was the question that haunted me in those first weeks as we adjusted to my mother’s new brain — her speech slurred, vision blurred, balance gone, limbs shaking, and worst of all, her lonely confusion each day in a hospital not recognizing faces, not knowing whether anyone loved her. What if a matriarch loses her way and cannot lead the herd to water?
I don’t recall whether the documentary answered the question, but already I felt the first tug of an answer: the herd has more mothers. In that same herd there were daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins. They were watching, remembering, walking and digging alongside. The matriarch was never alone. Already I felt a kind of nudge like elephants bumping against my sides with a kind of trusting, pushing, lifting motion. It was the steady feel of every sister-aunt-daughter-mother-grandmother reminding me we’ve been through this before, and together, we got this.
For the first time in my life, I was collecting phone numbers of relatives — aunts, uncles, second cousins. I made calls to keep people updated on my mother who, with her shaky hands and shakier memory, could no longer be trusted to answer rightly when asked “how are you.” It felt strange to call these relatives when always before we had talked when gathered at the homes of my mother, her sisters, and my grandmother before. I had always been a spoke on a wheel while older mothers were the hub, and now with my growing list of phone numbers I was also becoming a hub.
In South Africa when a woman has a child the community calls her by a new name: Mother of ____. In Africa I was MakaPhoebe or MakaZeke — Mother of Phoebe or Mother of Zeke. To an outsider, the practice might seem like the antithesis of womanist empowerment. To call a woman by her mother role might seem like one more patriarchal step past making her take her husband’s last name, stealing another scrap of her individual identity. It could be read as making a woman into nothing more than a reproductive instrument churning out children for the father, the clan, and the economy.
But in Africa I never once felt the title of Mother as an insult. When men called me MakaPhoebe or Mama Jeske often they bowed their heads just a bit in a gesture of honor. When my fellow mothers called me MakaZeke I felt welcomed into a sisterhood of strength that reached back through endless generations. Unlike my white American upbringing, where the role of mother is often treated like a side-step from places of influence and esteem, mothers here mattered. In my life I have been called Mrs., Professor, and Doctor, but never have I felt so respected as when Africans called me a fellow Mother.
Being called MakaPhoebe by someone who was and could never be my child communicated that a real mother is never just a mother of her offspring, but a mother in a community and for a community. Anthropologists call this fictive kinship. It can be used for oppression, as when families call their nannies family without the privileges of family, but it can also be a system of community wholeness. Years later when I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a book drawing on her own indigenous heritage to teach of the ecologies of people woven together with all things, I learned from her the term “clan mother,” and my heart said yes, this is what I want to become.
I have caught glimpses of clan motherhood among my European-American family and communities — in the aunt who wrapped me in her bosomy hugs every Christmas and laughed the loudest in the room, or the widow in my church who is the reason more people attend my church than any other person — but also I have seen individualism, patriarchy, and materialism drive too many white women to lonely purposelessness. And so I continue to listen and learn from sisters and mothers and aunts like the Native clan mother Robin Wall Kimmerer and the African women who called me MakaPhoebe.
When I had only just arrived in Africa for the first of the five years we would live there, my husband and tucked board books into my purse took our two preschoolers with us to church. We sat straight-backed on bare benches holding children on our laps and listened to the African voices echoing round and round the mud-walled room. With no hymnals and no PowerPoint, all was call and response — the preaching and the singing all moved with the rhythm of call, response, call, response.
On that first Sunday while I was still an infant to the language and culture, a stranger at my side began translating. During one sone she leaned in and explained, “They are singing, ‘Where are the mothers who praise the Lord?’ It’s a song for Mothers Day, you know.”
Mothers Day in my childhood was marked by Walmart flowers hastily purchased and children awkwardly appeasing their mothers’ wishes to attend church just this once, but here Mothers Day apparently meant this song. “Where are the mothers,” the congregation sang in repetition for some time.
And then all at once an old woman with a bent back stood up from her place and broke through in a voice like worn leather: “Here are the mothers. We are the mothers.” With shouts and ululated cries of lelelele, the congregation whooped in joy, and one by one across the room the mothers stood and joined in response. Layers upon layers of harmony built as the people sang and the the mothers grooved their hips. Some carried babies tied with towels to their backs, some were hunched with age and others timid with youth, and all moved in step between the crowded benches to become a river of women. I spotted one woman who would later become a best friend, a mother who had borne no children but who cared for ten nieces and nephews, dancing bold and alive and at home her body. Here are the mothers. We are the mothers.
The woman beside took my hand and I felt eyes turning to my foreigner awkward self as she tugged. Still unable to snap my tongue with the clicks and vowels of the language, I had been moving my lips, but in that hand tug I could feel that no one cared if I go the words right. With a glance at my baby on the cracked floor and a pass-off of the child on my lap, I let this sister pull me to my feet and lead me into the sway of the dance, into the long train weaving together the call and the response.
As we celebrate Mothers Day, there are those of us who have lost mothers, those whose mothers could not fulfill our hopes, those hoping to be mothers, those hoping not to be, and mothers themselves with all their mix of terror and hope. It’s unfortunate that the holiday is spelled with a singular mother: Mother’s Day. I prefer to pluralize it: Mothers’ Day. Because to be a mother is not about being a lone individual who gave birth to a child. It is about belonging to a community, being another hub. It is about being the next to carry memories of the places we find water, one who keeps the herd digging through dark of night. Mothers are the ones who hear the call of the community and rise up dancing.