Mothers, Grand Mothers and God-Mothers

Mothers, Grand Mothers and God-Mothers


Mothers on Mother’s Day, as well as Grand-Mothers and God-Mothers have a role to play in educating their female relatives about life and literature.

One of my favourite stories is a very short poem by American poet Emily Dickinson which was recited to me as a child recuperating from the Chicken Pox. My God-Mother, used to say that Emily Dickinson had a poem for everything.

Autumn in Canberra for Mother’s Day.

For a budding scientist, this meant that whatever my question, my God-Mother had a Dickinson quotation to use. I once quietly asked of her, “How do we know that science is real?” to which she replied quoting Dickinson:

Science is very near us/
I found a megatherium on my strawberry.’

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

We learn from the dictionary that a ‘megatherium’ is a large extinct ground sloth – which could have easily found its way into a strawberry patch. According to my God-Mother, science is all around us, it is the nature that we walk in and surrounds and permeates our life.


Good food provided by a Mother is sustaining.

A love of nature is not universally shared though. Some choose to tame it and others choose to ignore it. Others choose to live as gently and intelligently as they can in nature’s midst.

A respect for nature and its offerings is often taught at home before schooling begins. In some cultures, the values and codes of conduct toward nature and environment are conveyed to young minds in the home with family members present.


A Mother encourages books and reading.

An approach to science and nature is often supported by cultural institutions and in centres of learning as part of the syllabus. Specific types of literature created by writers and poets are used to encourage and foster young minds of an awareness and understanding of their environment.

A fruit bowl is a gift for Mother.

A fruit bowl is an ideal gift for Mother.

One poet who inspired my female relatives on caring for the environment was Emily Dickinson. The poet lived from 1830-1886 near Amherst, Massachusetts in the USA.

Dickinson loved her Amherst homestead which she lived in with her immediate family and household staff. Her Mother suffered from ill-health and Dickinson and her sister looked after her with assistance from household staff.

A Mother will nourish a young mind.

A Mother will nourish a young mind.

Dickinson’s garden was enjoyed as a refuge for thought and ideas. Her time at a Protestant Christian boarding school unwittingly encouraged her untamed mind to explore and question life and philosophy.


Reading by the fireside with Mother.

In my own case, English and North American literature were popularly read, and shared on summer holidays. The books conveyed the cultural expectations my family wanted me to support and foster. We never quoted sections of poetry or verse out loud to each other. As my own Mother wanted, literature was read quietly in the garden, in our own room or by the fireside.

My parents would retire to the garden on a long hot summer’s day under a large umbrella to read their literature. My Mother’s reading list included Shakespeare, Eliot, Dickinson, Bronte, Byron, Shelley and Keats. I remember the family’s tartan picnic rug was littered with paperback poetry and some hardback books with leather bookmarks.

My parents’ education was interrupted by World War 11. Thankfully, my Mother and a God-Mother were determined that my education would not be similarly undermined. To my female relatives, forging ahead with literature as a guide map was a necessary and ongoing exertion for thoughtful minds.

'A Quiet Passion' film about Emily Dickinson

‘A Quiet Passion’ film about Emily Dickinson

My female relatives sought to develop and enrich my life for decision-making and leadership. To them, understanding literature was a worthwhile pursuit to develop the inner mind. It was considered just as important as the development of the body’s physical muscles and sporting skills.

“Use your brains” was one of my God-Mother’s favourite phrases when I was tempted by schoolfriends to choose style over substance.

I’m thankful that my God-Mother introduced me to the literature of American poet Emily Dickinson. She gave me a conversation starter to share over the telephone with my paternal Grand-Mother who lived in another country.

It was a blessed day that I learned of Dickinson’s megatherium in the strawberry patch. Collectively, my female relatives including my Mother, two Grand Mothers and God-Mother and I had an idea to share between us as we each watched the seasons come and go. I finished school wiser for their love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Reading list

Benfy, Christopher (1986) “Emily Dickinson: lives of a poet”, George Braziller, Inc., New York, USA.

Longsworth, Polly (1965) “Emily Dickinson: Her Letter to the World”, Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, New York, USA.

McLure Mudge, Jean (1975) “Emily Dickinson & the Image of Home”, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, USA.

Miller, Ruth (1968) “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, USA.

Sims, David (2017) “A Quiet Passion” film playbill, quotes from The Atlantic, Palace Films, Melbourne, Australia.

Text copyright Fiona Rothchilds and acknowledged sources.
Text uploaded 12 May 2018.
Photo images: various sources.

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