The Beauty, Power, Tragedy and Pain of the Maternal Spirit
by Dr. Nathaniel Dunigan
I call my dad’s mom “Nanny.” That’s what she wanted to be called when I was born because she was “far too young to be a grandmother.” When we were in public, should someone overhear me speaking to her, she preferred that they have the impression that she was a professional (in a good way, of course). I will visit her next week in the assisted living facility she has occupied for fifteen years, this after two other facilities. She’s a fiery, powerful woman who has taught me courage and independence.
My mom’s mom I called “Gammy” simply because I initially couldn’t say the word “grandma.” (Nanny needn’t have worried, it turns out.) Gammy taught me unconditional love, an adoration of the kitchen, and a sense of humor that my aunt describes as “earthy.” Years ago, before I moved to Africa, Gammy lived with me. She had Alzheimer’s then, and in many ways it was a dark time in her human experience. But even way back then, she inspired me to write an essay (that was published). It was based on this proverb: “It is always springtime in the heart that loves God.”
(From this vantage point, I realize that both of my biological grandmothers embody emotional brilliance.)
And now, my kids call my mom, “Jjaja,” (pronounced “JAW-jaw”).
As a result, the whole AidChild family calls her the same.
And she loves it. The word simply means “Grandmother” in Luganda, but like “Nanny” and “Gammy,” it seems somehow extra sweet when said on the lips of those who love her.
I vividly remember a moment, a few years ago, when a staff member whom the kids call “Uncle Tom,” told me about a time when he and Jjaja ran into one of our oldest kids–who is now living and working in Kampala. It was a proud exchange with hugs and updates. Finally and reluctantly–according to Uncle Tom–he and Jjaja had to leave my son to his work as they continued on their journey through the bustling streets of Uganda’s capital.
“And then Jjaja cried,” Tom added as he concluded his story, all while we were in similar traffic months later.
We sat in silence.
Well, in a silence. Horns, and shouting humans still surrounded us. The red dust from the city’s streets still entered the car and our lungs. The music from the churches and the calls from the mosques still sent their proclamations, even as the giant birds screeched all around us.
But in the cabin of our SUV, and in our hearts, there was silence as we contemplated the fact that a young man’s Jjaja…cried.
Her emotion revealed itself through a rawness of voice in response to an encounter, however brief, with a dear heart whom she had fully embraced–because he had fully embraced hers.
This is the beauty, power, tragedy and pain of the maternal spirit.
And it’s precious.
A Divine revelation in the language of the human.
When we choose to care.
Happy Mother’s Day, Jjaja. Thank you for caring, feeling, crying and being!
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