“The fifty mothers” is a phrase from a Barbara Kingsolver book, Animal Dreams. The book tells the story of a young woman who moves home when she learns that her younger sister has been kidnapped by the Contras in Nicaragua. It is a beautiful, heart-breaking story that has stayed with me for 20 years. In the book, Kingsolver uses the phrase “the fifty mothers” to describe the many women who helped raise the main character and her younger sister after their mother died in childbirth.
The phrase came to me this week when I was thinking about my childhood. I felt like an orphan growing up. My mother was quite ill physically; in and out of the hospital with surgeries that required long recovery periods. But more importantly, my mother was not mentally well. None of us talked about it back then. Today she would be diagnosed; her condition given a name that might help us to understand her. But, back then, it just seemed that she was very unhappy; depressed, angry, and always disengaged from our lives. When we were teens, she started to travel. The trips grew more frequent and longer in duration until she was away more than she was home. She finally left full-time; she moved far way to another country and maintained little contact with us.
Now that I am the mother of teens, I wonder how we survived that; her anger and resentment; her disinterest and depression; and finally her abandonment. I have come to realize that we survived because of “the fifty mothers” in our lives. My Italian grandmother who taught me how to make meatballs and spaghetti sauce. My Scottish grandmother who took me to her cottage each summer. My mother’s sister who taught me how to water ski. My father’s sister who celebrated every occasion in our lives. Carol’s mom who took me to Church and included me her family’s brunches on Sundays. Anne and Beth’s mom who made room at her family’s table for my sister and me all through our teens. Cathy’s mom who shared life’s insights, sharpened by breast cancer, over tea in her kitchen. And Rick’s mom who spent countless evenings talking with me about her favourite authors, Margaret Lawrence, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Atwood.
These women were among ‘the fifty mothers” who helped to raise me. They made me feel welcome; they made me feel safe. They taught me life skills; they broadened my interests. They gave me a sense of belonging; they made me feel seen. Several of my “fifty mothers” have now passed away and I never had the opportunity to tell them how important they were to me.
But I have picked up their mantle. As the mother of two teens, I have become one of “the fifty mothers” to my children’s friends. I have opened my home to them; included them at my family’s dinner table; made breakfasts for them; hugged them; scolded them for wearing runners in the snow; talked with them about movies and books; and watched Buffy, Lost and Fringe with them. And in so doing, I have discovered that the gift works both ways; that “the fifty mothers” get as much as they give.