The Naming of Our Mother-Lines by Cynthia Garrity-Bond
I am Cynthia, daughter of Pauline, daughter of Ellen, daughter of Mary. I first spoke this litany of names at a retreat given by Carol Christ. As we entered the chapel, each woman was given a rose to place in the center of the circle after she recited her own mother line. Simple but incredibly powerful, a beautiful reminder of our matriarchal inheritance.
The reflection of this ritual is all the more rich because today is my birthday. Especially since my mother’s death in 1990, March 9 is a day of reflection on our complicated mother-daughter relationship with all its highs and lows that marked our lives. But what I really miss from her are the stories told around the kitchen table, starting with the uniqueness of each of our births. With each one, the hope and expectation of both parents was for a daughter. Not until the fourth birth did their plea to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes (and our family’s most depended on saint), bring forth their highly anticipated girl.
Growing up I loved to hear the details of my birth and naming, especially from my mother’s point of view. While my father’s version of my birth was worthy, it was my Irish mother’s gift of gab and storytelling that kept me captivated. It did not matter how many times I heard my story, it was always as if the telling was for the first time. I can picture us around the dinner table, chins supported by clasped hands, eyes fixed and focused on our mother. It never mattered whose story was told, it was always a welcomed, communal event. We repeated the same questions of concern and curiosity particular to each story even though we already knew the answers. Something about the asking drew us into a tighter circle of familiarity and strength.
Each of us came into the world under completely different circumstances, which came to frame our personal narrative. William Gordon, my half-brother, never knew his birth mother. She died from leukemia just twelve months after giving birth. So while Mom could not give detail to the particulars, she would tell us, and in particular Billy, how she became wife and mother on the same day. Which under any other circumstances could be considered cause for anxiety but she loved the formula. The next brother, Charles Peter, Mom’s first, came into the world breech, shredding her to the point of receiving last rites and two reconstructive surgeries before the birth of brother number three. Given the complications of her first delivery, Michael Paul’s arrival was under heavy anesthesia. With the exception of Michael, the telling of this birth would have us roaring with laughter. The story goes that once Mom woke from her “twilight sleep” the nurses presented her with son number three, which she immediately rejected as too ugly to be hers. I have seen photos of Michael and I have to concur with Mom’s initial assessment–he was in fact the ugliest baby I have ever seen. He was long, very long and lean to the point of emaciated. He had a full head of wild jet-black hair that converged over his entire body. His complexion was a deep olive, offsetting his rather large, protruding hooknose. Each time the nurse attempted to place Michael in her arms, she rejected him. Obviously at some point in this exchange Mom relented and accepted him as her own. In her attempt to assuage Michael’s growing sense of inferiority, she reassured him and the rest of us, that time and extra formula would transform the ugly duckling into a worthy prince.
The story of my birth does not carry any of the traumas of my first two brothers and defiantly none of this-baby-is-too-ugly-to-be-mine lament generated from the third birth. My story is ripe with beauty and joy and anticipation. There are two years between Michael and myself with one miscarriage in-between. It seems Mom was relentless in her pursuit of having a daughter. I was reminded that as pregnancies go, this one was near perfect; except for those forty or so pounds she piled on eating chocolate covered raisins. I was told the delivery went as well as the pregnancy. With minimal drama, Mom was in command as she walked into the hospital, fierce in her confidence that this was the one. Once her body had reached its final stage and she was ready to push, she requested a mirror be positioned above her in order to witness the event. This next part of the story was always my favorite and she knew it. With calculated precision she gave life to the bones of her story and to me as I sat transfixed with delight. At first only the side of my head emerged revealing the first of two physical markers that bind me to my mother. With a breathless awe she cried out, “The dimple! Look at her dimple!” As I made my debut Mom was able to trace the features of my tiny contorted face in the mirror. There, on the right side of my face, visible only when I sneeze or twist my nose into a deep scrunch, is the odd dimple that also marks my mother’s face in the exact same location. My shoulders, I was told, passed with ease revealing a small mold near my belly button. Her voice would slow to a rhythmic cadence as she reminded me that this too, was the second birthmark we shared, located in the same location on our bodies. “We are mythically joined,” she admonished “in ways that mother & sons cannot be.” Like a mother lion stalking her prey, she would lock her eyes on me and continue with the promise that because of our matching outward signs we carried within us a special knowledge of the other. All this apparently rose to my mother’s consciousness within the first few moments after the doctor’s obligatory declaration of “It’s a girl!”
I was sealed, my mother counseled, even before my birth with signifiers that would always let me know where I came from and where my loyalties must lie. I am Cynthia, daughter of Pauline, daughter of Ellen, daughter of Mary. A strong, tenacious mother-line of women I call my own.
Cynthie Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.