There are many mirrors around us at one time. The black-backed glass of the vanity only reflects our physical image. The other mirrors are more ephemeral–living and breathing women. I see myself in those women — each one reflecting a different light — dear friends, passionate colleagues, sister, cousins, aunts. In one, all of my past mothers, down through the generations before me, their souls still tied to generations of children, are quietly observing us. Looking in this mirror I am puzzled, questioning. What do they want for me? For women? Have we improved our lives in each generation? Or do they hold me up against their values, unchanging with time?
When I look in one mirror, I see my mother’s face and hands on myself. And her mother’s. My sister, my aunts, my cousins are bonded by the ways in which our mothers and grandmothers taught us and we’re created from the DNA that was carried from Ireland, Scotland, England and France. It’s magical, really, when you think about the strength those bonds can hold.
When my ancestral mothers saw me preparing for marriage, how many thought of unions of bondage? How many remembered bonds of love?
How many hours of labor pains also held grief over expectations not met, plans not fulfilled? How many times did a child mean the end of youth? How many times the beginning of joy?
I more than resemble my mother. I possess my mother’s nervous hands, clicking knees, and nasal swallow. I have those green eyes that reach back through generations…a gift of emeralds from my familial past. My mother’s laugh is my own. My daughter, too, possesses the McNeil women’s laugh — that beautiful and familiar sound I hear in my sister, my cousins, and my aunts. It is an organic part of me and now a part of my daughter.
How does each exquisite emotion get patterned in my genes? Do I feel theirs too? Does their genetic thread also weave my mental patterns? Who gave me my life-altering depressive black spells?
I am the first in that long line of women to choose Judaism, with its long history of persecution, but I am not the first to understand intolerance, a new life, and a heart-wrenching break with the past. Are life decisions harder or easier with shifting ancestral religious traditions? The Highland Clearances drove my Presbyterian Scots matriarchs to a northern wilderness. Two sets of ancestors left France in the 1600s. My Huguenot mothers fled Catholic persecution and torture rooted in The Edict of Fontainebleau. My Catholic filles du roi risked the starvation and cold of Nouvelle France with their habitants husbands. One family, once enemies. Now I’m a Jew in a Christian family. My mother, a Protestant, married my Catholic father. Is that religious restlessness, the ability to cross denominations, a part of my ancestry as well?
The older I get the more indebted I am to each of those women who struggled and worked and loved and endured. In the mirror’s reflection I am my mother, and hers before her, bent over the warm earth, planting flowers in spring. I am my mother, and hers before her, facing the day-to-day work, placing meals on the table, cooling feverish foreheads. I am my mother, and those before her, facing heart-wrenching disappointment and heart-warming moments of pure joy. I am my mother, and hers before her, understanding the face in the mirror isn’t ours alone.
I look back and remember holding my daughter in a rocking chair — patting her back in my mother’s slow beat — waiting for her to grow up and ask herself these same questions, knowing she will not ask me, she will answer for herself.