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  • Writer's picturehayley cagan kamis

The Interest Is Worth More than the Principal

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

Four generations, August 1968

I am a matriarch. As the first female born to my father’s family in 50 years, my birth set in motion the passing of traditions and values from mothers who paved the way for my place in the world. I came in as a “we” long before and with as much value as I am a “me”.

Grandma Bert was one of the most salient matriarchs in my life. She was the center of our world, a paradigm of strength, courage and undying support. She dolled out kisses, hugs, encouragement and validation as if it were candy. Ironically her home contained an endless supply of sweet and salty snacks prohibited by our own parents – but it was Grandma’s house, and Grandma was the boss. Of everyone. Period.

Like most matriarchs, Grandma had many pearls of wisdom to share. For example, she emphasized the importance of “giving with an open hand, not a closed fist”: a gift has no value if it’s distributed from the bank of strings attached. She was quick to express her joy in spending precious time with her progeny, teaching us that the affection and support we invest in our children are our greatest contributions to the world – thus, “the interest is worth more than the principal”.

Her title was equal parts personal identifier and moniker, much like how orange is both a color and a fruit: she was known as “Grandma” to everyone from her biological gene pool to the waitress at her favorite diner - people from every background, language, culture, skin color and faith.

And yet, sometimes the meaning behind her "grandma-isms" was lost in translation. They were presented with increasing occurrence over time, eventually within the same conversation. My siblings, cousins and I began referring to these quotes by number, sharing a knowing glance between us in recognition of which would come next. But, as tends to happen as we all age, details fade and words betray us, resulting in unexpected outcomes, such as referring to her support of my aunt’s post-partum depression as a condition heretofore known as “After-birth syndrome”- terminology specific to my hereditarily associated best friends.

Although more effectively trained in medical diagnoses, my mother followed in my grandmother’s footsteps without skipping a beat, using her own voice and manner and personality. She was – and is – fiercely protective of her children and grandchildren, allowing no one to dare squash our dreams, to assume our value, to dampen our self-confidence or sell us short. She has always taught us to advocate for ourselves as well as others, and demonstrates what it means to be present, to step in, to speak up and to hold each other tight.

Now our children and cousins learn from her example as well. The opportunity to participate in their endless parade of childhood performances, athletic events, fundraisers, parties and playdates lights up her soul …not to mention that her grandmotherly stance on delicious treats has softened quite a bit since my own childhood.

Mom’s words of wisdom give us hope in times of disappointment, as apparently it is a law of nature that “when one door closes another one opens”. As a teenager pre-wired for concrete thinking, I cringed – and probably rolled my eyes - when she reminded me that life isn’t always black-and-white: greys exist and they matter...and yet these words resonate as the voice inside my head encouraging me to consider context and perspective in precarious situations. Still, she has a tendency to call the large Swedish mega-market of self-assembled furniture “Ikaya”, eliciting a response from our family akin to saying the word “underpants” in the company of four-year olds. And when we’re unsure of her whereabouts, we're pretty confident she’s parked in what must be her own personal spot at Lord & Taylor by now…none of which, by the way, invalidate her strength, compassion or sense of social justice.

Grandma Bert and Mom maintained unconventional culinary assumptions: for example, food lasts forever if you put it in the freezer; sell-by and expiration dates are just a suggestion; and providing sustenance – in overabundance – will solve almost any problem. However, they also taught us that most of those problems wouldn’t exist if people interacted with each other as souls instead of bodies. My matriarchs walked their talk, professionally, socially, and in service to the many communities in which they resided. My grandmother may have taken that walk with a cane dangling on her wrist like a bangle bracelet, much to my mother – the physical therapist’s – dismay; and Mom has been known to zipline or ride a camel or elephant as an adventurous substitute for mere ambulation. Regardless of how they got from point A to point B, their principles never wavered.

The matriarchs before me not only represented the high ideals and human realities of motherhood, but also prepared me to answer my own maternal calling. I had always assumed I’d have a daughter with whom I’d share this knowledge and experience. She, too, would pay forward the nurturing, hard work and strides for equality initiated by our foremothers. Her birthright would pulse throughout her body, inspire her intellect and benefit the well-being of future generations.

I daydreamed of this hypothetical daughter, quite seriously planning how I might teach her to find balance between lovingkindness and justice, and be mindful of when to step in or back off so that she could discover her own identity within the broader context of our legacy.

Therefore I was completely unprepared for the sonogram informing us that I was either incubating a son or a daughter with 3 legs. A boy? I was going to birth a boy. Despite all obvious statistical models of procreation, it had never occurred to me that a son was, indeed, a possibility. A boy...I didn’t know what to do with one of those.

As the next matriarch on deck, I wondered, am I the last in our lineage? Would it take 50 years for the next one to show up? Because NOBODY wants a pushy, know-it-all “matriarch-in-law”. What could I possibly offer a “he”?

I now understand that 5 of the 9 months of pregnancy are vital to managing expectations and, potentially, reframing one’s point of reference to prepare parents for the many unexpected child-centered experiences to come.

What I realized within the first 7 seconds of holding my newborn son is that genitalia by no means determine one’s potential or worth. Any words of wisdom, guidance and even odd habits that follow a model of motherhood stem from love – a place unrestricted by gender, however identified or experienced. At its very core, the generations of women before me intuitively understood this: how to share love, recognize it, give it away with an open hand, be grateful for its existence when lost, to encourage its expression, and to share its lessons with all who listen, and even those who won’t. They distributed their love equally to the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, boys and girls who crossed their thresholds. Regardless of who shows up, the job description doesn’t change.

Nowadays I catch myself perseverating on a limited collection of my own momisms.

Thus far I’ve determined that when things don’t go as expected, “if you’re willing to be patient, there’s always something better around the corner.” It’s become abundantly clear that we “need not attend every argument we’re invited to,” and despite the fact that it might feel otherwise, no one “always” or “never” does anything. Plus when “I honestly don’t know” the answer to your question, I’m confident that we can find it together.

Much to my dismay, I live in infamy among my son’s friends due to my screeching rendition of “NEIGHBORS!”, a reminder that their running, jumping and other boy sleepover noises (and smells) might – and do – disturb the residents downstairs. And as hard as it is to admit, I've been known to let a bottle of salad dressing or can of soup sit on my shelves for, say, 5 years past the "use by" date. Plus I’m sure if you surveyed my son and his co-conspirators, they’d have contributions of crazy to add regarding my quirks and foibles, most of which I likely have no idea exist.

Mother's Day Emmy 2011: #1 Loving Mom (with angel wings!)

No matter. I stretch my motherly tentacles far and wide to pull children of all biological relationship or carbon-based existence close, resolute in connecting my matriarchal heart with all the others of our broadly defined family. This is my default setting, one fueled with an intention of grace, humor and affection. Now an adult, my son carries forth our traditions in his own style, with his own words, from his unique perspective. He expresses appreciation, stands up for himself and others, and is highly aware of his position as one of many vital threads in the tapestry of life.

I am a matriarch from a long line of strong women, and I have a son: a remarkable, intelligent, creative, loving son. He may have a Y-chromosome, but he, too, shares his insight, sensitivity, humor and fallibility in ways I never could have imagined. His nurturing heart will continue to pump the values and traditions of our ancestors throughout his being, and my heart will continue to do the same.

Or, as I’ve been known to tell him, “Your blood, my blood”.

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