© Another Day in the Country
We were watching a segment of “Nova” on public television the other night about animal childhood, and I watched the oldest female elephant setting the route across a swiftly moving river during their migration.
This matriarch of the herd was an imposing figure as she stepped into the turbulent water. She was BIG — a force to be reckoned with — and behind her, attempting to echo her footsteps came much smaller, much younger kith and kin.
Having mostly seen elephants in circuses and zoos, I wondered, “Why don’t they grab tails?” This would have comforted me, if I were heading into that water.
The bulk of the herd didn’t follow right away — especially the younger, inexperienced mothers with even smaller calves.
Right off the bat, I’m thinking that matriarch should have taken those smaller kids, too. Sure enough, the minute those mothers and babies hit the water, there was trouble.
I’m calling out “use your trunk,” to the mothers, but evidently heavy lifting with their trunk is not something elephant mothers normally do. They stood by frantic, seemingly helpless, as their babies were swept downstream. I’m hollering now, “Grab them! What’s with you?” I had to fast forward.
I wanted the elephant matriarch to gather the younger girls and say, “Do you know why this happened?” or “Let me teach you the importance of grabbing.” Something.
I suddenly remembered the first time I played the “matriarch” card on my grandson. He was 4 years old — old enough to know better — but he’d gotten in his head that he didn’t have to listen to adults like me if he didn’t want to.
We’d gone into the gym where his mother was teaching. I, the matriarch, called Baba, was watching him. He, the child, had agreed that he would not pester his mother while she was working — even though she was within earshot and eyesight.
We had an agreement, and if not followed, this would mean we had to play outdoors.
My little bull elephant, youngest member of the herd, was bent on getting his mother’s attention.
“Don’t go over there again,” I warned (trumpeted), “or we go outside.”
When he started to disobey, again, the matriarch grabbed his hand and said, “We’re going out.”
When he refused, she picked him up and carried this loudly protesting boy clear out to the car, opened it with one hand, deposited him inside, and then climbed into the seat beside him and locked the doors.
“Time out.” I said.
Oh, he was so unhappy at me. He never dreamed his Baba was strong enough or determined enough to do all this. He was furious. He was shocked. He was mad and he was amazed.
So was I. I’d wondered if I was too old for full time matriarchy. Certainly I was out of breath, but we both had time to regain our composure.
My aunt Anna had been the matriarch in our family since time immemorial. She started as a teenager, second in command to her mother and more formidable.
“Anna always knew when we’d been bad,” my mother used to say. “She could tell. And if she didn’t know, she could get it out of you.”
Our Schubert matriarch just died at age 108. That’s an awfully long time to be leader of the herd.
Through the years, we’d all depended on Anna for things like knowing who’s related to whom and how, our grandparents history (she finally wrote it down), when people got married, when children were born, the year of the deepest snows, the stories about being getting scarlet fever, and who in the family had what.
She was past 95 before she said, “I don’t remember any of that anymore.”
Anna had remembered for all of us for decades, and then suddenly we were on our own.
She kept us all on track, led us in fording rivers, and didn’t think twice about it. She named the unknown faces in old photographs and didn’t bow to the trend of using nicknames, calling all of us by our full, given name.
She set an example, wouldn’t gossip, stuck to the path, did her duty, and smiled graciously right to the end.
Now, the herd feels fragmented. It’s another day in the country, and I’m now the older generation, the one in charge of remembering — for a while.