(An Ambivalent) Recommendation Letter: Matriarchy
My grandmother Sylvia was a piñata, her elongated cleavage stuffed with tissues and her ever-present “pocka-book” ready to burst forth with purloined Sweet-N-Low packets. The Technicolor pink of the stolen sugar, shoveled into her bag at a local fast food joint, was an advertisement for everything about our family that you needed to know: 1. we were going to die early from the things we consumed; 2. we didn’t always follow the law or think it applied to us; 3. we liked to cover the bitter with the sweet, however bad the aftertaste.
My grandmother Sylvia was a bombshell, when bombshells could have voluminous curves that swelled over the tops of their 1940s pencil skirts and lines drawn on the back of their calves in eyeliner to mimic stockings. When she was growing up on Broadway—a street not in neon New York City, but in Schenectady, a dreary industrial town upstate—boys would follow her, singing “when Sylvia walks down the street, the sidewalk sizzles.” Her mother, Anna, the family matriarch, called out to her from her place at the counter of the meat market she owned and operated after the early death of her husband, his heart stopped over a particularly recalcitrant slab of kosher beef. She told her to avoid the fast Italian boys like “Dominic Ragucci.” “Wait to meet a nice Jewish boy,” she said.
My grandmother Sylvia was a matriarch—in a long line of matriarchs. Mothers and aunts and sisters and daughters, living in unknown Galician towns and small American communities, taking up the slack. Men in my family didn’t live long, and, if they did, they didn’t live well. Weakness, anger, and addiction attached themselves to the Y chromosome and galloped down the genetic line, leaving behind fragility and need as their offspring. Did the women in my family want to be matriarchs? Did they want to run businesses and raise children and keep it all together, shaky but dry-eyed? Did they want their prominent busts to have to cut through choppy waters like the prow of a ship, leaving room in their wake for difficult husbands and children to sail along? They were loving and powerful, sure, but was it worth it?
A matriarchy is a community built of lack that becomes something better than the one it was constructed to replace.
I was a child once, benefiting from this matriarchal world. My mother’s and grandmother’s and aunt’s hands stretched out, all of us connected in a row like be-skirted paper dolls.
My mother was a hippie. She straightened her curly black hair with a sizzling iron and jangled with bracelets and idealism when she walked. Her college days were taken up with reading books by Euripides and Amiri Baraka—names she’d never have been able to conjure before a chorus of long-haired, chain-smoking professors introduced them to her. (Years later, she kept her college term papers in a large, wooden box under her bed, next to precious jewelry, grainy photos, and family heirlooms. A lost future to complement the lost past.)
My mother was hilarious and kind, boisterous and political, the Rhoda to her patrician roommate’s Mary Tyler Moore. They marched arm and arm against the war, ran from tear gas in sandals and peasant blouses, locked the doors of their apartment against the unpleasant catcalls of frat boys. The college newspaper ran a series of comics about an iconic feminist coed with long dark hair and my mother’s unusual name, Risé. I have searched in vain for evidence of it in the archives, but it has vanished as totally as my mother has, leaving behind only a tattered mythology to replace the warm-blooded reality of her presence.
My mother was a free spirit. Her future spread out before her without blueprint or prophecy. She was nobody’s mother. Maybe her own, if we can imagine “mothering” as a verb attached to self-invention and freedom, rather than to nurturance and stasis. She thought she’d live somewhere she’d never been, like Arizona or New Mexico. Take a bus and see where it took her. In books and on television, the Southwest seemed like a Georgia O’Keefe landscape, dreamy deserts and pot smoke making life hazy and palatable.
Matriarchies sing a powerful Siren’s call. Its tune is written in the blood.
My grandmother called her home to co-chair the family. Grandma Sylvia was not yet sick, as she would be years later, her brain a neural spaghetti beneath her magenta hair, left to speak in bite-sized cinematic aphorisms that had been digested when she was a girl (“frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.”) But, she needed my mother back home in Schenectady RIGHT NOW to help her care for her ailing husband while her no-good son pursued money and STDs in warmer climes. That is how a matriarchy works. It means you run things, but it also means you run things. And when you run things, you can’t escape.
My mother helped her mother. And, later, she was a mother, a mother like you’ve never seen. She mothered my father, smothered his suicidality and his rage, tamped down his trauma beneath a love so unconditional it felt like it came from Greek myth. Or, that could rewrite Greek myth. This could be her story—a mixed-metaphor Demeter who would have burned down Hades, reverse-thunderbolted Zeus, transformed into a minotaur, but to help, rather than entrap, people who came into her orbit. She was simultaneously formidable and gentle and adored me so much that her death felt like my own death in miniature. Her death left a family without a matriarch. Just me and my father and my daughter—and a matriarchal role I don’t want.
When men imagine matriarchies, they often have a sexual cast—Amazonian women, breasts bared and wrists manacled, ready for battle or BDSM spectacle.
When women imagine matriarchies, they often focus on the potential for equality and the dream of a world without men.
Most men and women envision matriarchies as feminist utopias that provide a map for how we might live in the present—how we might live in a world where women have primary power and the nuclear family unit is overturned.
What these fantasies of matriarchy miss is its intimacy—the ways in which matriarchies are built at home and often out of necessity.
What they fail to represent are the daily agonies and ecstasies of living in a matriarchal family—how it feels to be umbilically connected to a group of powerful women with a genealogy as beautiful and vexed as one out of Homer. A group of women who are suffering.
Living in a matriarchy was the thing I most valued, the central principle of my life, my natal myth. That is, until my mother died almost 2 years ago. At her death at 66, too young, too young, I was left to think about the wear and tear of her position, what it meant to have traded freedom for responsibility, to have spent your life tending to weak men and needy children, to have tucked your writing in a box under the weight of a bed in which the problems of others slept. Maybe, a matriarchy could only work in a world without men, in a world where women would not be drafted into buttressing male weakness.
My mother died one week to the day after Donald Trump was elected president. This felt significant and tragic in a classic sense. Just as all tragic heroines carry the seeds of their destruction in the very marrow of their character, so did my mother carry hers in her frustrated belief in a world in which women could and should rule. We cried on the phone on election night, my mother worried that she would not live to see a woman be elected president. I scoffed. “It could happen in four years, mom,” I said. One week later, she died of a massive heart attack, splitting the world in two, rending it as my black cardigan was rent by the rabbi at her funeral.
Before and after. Before and after my mother. Before and after matriarchy. Before and after Trump.
It is ridiculous to weave your own narrative into the world’s, especially when the world cares so little for the individuals who inhabit its surface. But, it is difficult not to inscribe the story of my mother onto the one women are living today.
“Was your mother happy?”
This is the question I want to ask every man I meet.
Almost always, I imagine that the answer would be “no.”
Every man I know is, nowadays, a feminist. This should—and, often, does—seem like progress to me. As recently as my own time in graduate school, when I asked male students whether they identified as feminists, I’d get more eye-rolls and awkward shrugs than hand-raises. Now, every sensitive hipster man, every droll English department colleague, drips with affirmations about “believing women.” I’m sorry if I sound cynical here. The world is filled with kindly men, caught in the web of others’ expectations, just as women are. Men, I think, can love and support women. But, I don’t think most men comprehend the link between Trump’s gendered epithets and Kavanaugh’s rapey ‘80s hijinks and their own experiences.
Not all men are Trump. Not all men are Kavanaugh. It is easier to judge them than to judge our fathers, our uncles, our brothers, ourselves, whose behaviors are less wanton, if no less detrimental.
Almost all men are beneficiaries of the love of women, the care of women, have had failures erased and broken hearts reassembled by women.
Almost all men have betrayed women, have taken their love for granted, have worried more about their own hero’s journey than that of the brilliant Penelope they’d left behind.
Were the women who loved them happy? Were they fulfilled? Did their bodies suffer for lack of the care they so easily dispensed to others? Who knew? Who cared?
I know that my mother’s body suffered. Her body ached and stiffened as she aged. She had undergone multiple spinal surgeries. Her back and pelvis had been broken by a terrible car accident when she was in her twenties. Thrown from the car, she was prevented from dying when the steering wheel pressed in, but she received a scalped head, a broken body, and a lifetime of pain for her luck. My dad walked away from the crash unscathed. Not a scratch or a bruise on him. This is no one’s fault. This is just the way things happened. This is also a metaphor for their lives together. My dad lived his life with the fury of a car crash, leaving torn metal and spinning wheels in his wake. He always walked away from the wreckage. My mom, somehow, could not.
Maybe this is why I’ve always seen my body as an inconvenience, a tail of tin cans to drag behind me as I walk. To me, my body is an oversized, not-quite-self that trails me like a ragged bogeyman out of Flannery O’Connor. I try to tell myself that it is something more: a living memorial to my mother and grandmother, a daily, material connection to my daughter.
Behind every matriarchy are the bodies of women.
Behind every matriarchy is a subterranean Kaddish, sung just for mothers by daughters.
Behind every matriarchy is a letter of resignation from the good things in life.
Behind every strong woman is a weak man, hovering like a hungry ghost.
Behind every strong woman is a magic circle of care, none of it directed towards herself.
Behind all this is my anger.
No one put a gun to my mom’s head. She wasn’t murdered. People like to remind me that she was a bit overweight, had smoked when she was younger, had diabetes and a bad heart valve. She had wonky genes, I am told. Her life being comparatively short is really her own fault. That is the message I have gleaned from countless well-meaning people whom I’d like to murder.
My mother did make choices. Bad ones, sometimes, I think. Choices to forgive or, if not to forgive, to abide. Choices not to ever put herself first.
Men make choices, too. When my grandmother Sylvia grew ill with the neurological disease that would eventually kill her, my mother chose to become her full-time caretaker, complete with adult-sized diapers and Hoyer lifts to move her own indomitable mother from bed to chair before she went to work in the morning. It’s just what daughters do, she said, through gritted teeth. My wealthy uncle chose to visit sometimes. When he arrived, he put his feet, clad in velvet loafers, up on the couch and expected my mother and grandmother to wait on him.
Sometimes, to make it easier for him, we visited. Just as my grandmother was getting sick, my mother and I took her to visit my uncle and his new baby in Dallas.
My mother pushed my grandmother’s wheelchair onto a moving walkway at the airport after we got off the plane. This was 1991 or so. As my uncle constantly reminded us, we were from the sticks, and we’d never seen a moving walkway before.
Mommy must have thought it would be easier to move Grandma this way, her now-200+ lbs of floral-shirted body-meat squished into the chair and threatening to tip it over. But, it was not easy. My mom pushed Grandma onto the walkway and the wheelchair got stuck and my mom’s small, pathos-laden, pink pleather flat with the bow on top got sucked into the machinery of the walkway and my mom squealed and my grandmother yelped and they just stayed that way for what felt like forever, a tableau of Sisyphusian futility, tottering on the verge of falling over as the walkway made a sickly ka-thunk. No one offered to help them. I was thirteen years old or so. Thirteen is an ugly age in more ways than one. At that age, I was distilled down to my essence—a well-meaning, but narcissistic child whose first response to any situation—much less one that showcases filial failure and fat—was shame. So many years later, I am ashamed at my shame, but also sympathetic to it. I remember who I was then and know she is still with me, her round tummy sausaged into a too-tight sweater and vest, the way she loved to daydream, nursing herself to sleep with images of the Pulitzer she’d win and the coterie of handsome writer-boys who would one day volunteer to serve as her groupies. I remember how much her family embarrassed her—their bodies and their visibility and their insistence on caring and loving into the grave.
I knew little but that I didn’t want to be like them. I am angry at myself for not recognizing how much love the two women stuck on the walkway felt for me, for each other, how they were alone and at sea, as they always were. I still don’t want to be like them. This, too, is a true story, but also a metaphor.
Matriarchies are lonely, even though they never let you alone.
Since my mother has died, my father has looked to be closer to me. Sometimes, he tries to be more like my mother was to me, more of a caretaker, but the role doesn’t sit easily with him and there is a history that sits between us like a rushing river, almost unimaginable to cross with safety. Other times, he wants to be taken care of, to be bailed out of his various schemes and crises. By me. I don’t know who I am to him yet or who I can allow myself to be.
Matriarchies are dangerous, even as they promise the warm embrace of maternal love.
Matriarchies are dangerous, but for whom?
My daughter was born in 2014. She was due on my mother’s birthday, 2 ½ years before she died. They were both wild, gregarious Geminis, each other’s twin. At the time, it felt half-comical, half-prophetic. My mother’s strong presence would be felt, even in my own pregnancy. A quiet voice in my head said, “Just think, even if you lose her, you will now have someone born on her birthday, someone to mother and love, as you’ve been mothered and loved.” My daughter was born a week early, granted astrological autonomy by a benign deity or two. But, her connection to my mother, so obvious from the moment they laid eyes on each other—even clearer as my daughter grows into someone as strong and funny and wild as her grandmother, without her even there to watch her grow—leaves me feeling worried, even as it comforts me. What should a mother bequeath to her daughter? Can I convince her that caring for others is no substitute for caring for yourself? A matriarchal family leaves its daughters with ambiguous gifts.