Two Mothers, by Jenny Spinner

We’re on our way to see a Hindu priest who lives in Chatsworth, a township outside of Durban where Indians, many whose ancestors were brought to South Africa during the Dutch colonial era as slaves, were again forcibly relocated in the 1950s by the apartheid government. The South Africans I am with have been visiting this priest for years, so they have little trouble finding his house and the one-room temple he has constructed in a small courtyard behind it. We roll up onto the curb that lines the narrow street, and six of us pile out, seeking—I can only speak for myself—a bit of light on the journey.

I’m in South Africa as part of a summer study abroad program, along with a colleague and eight students, and after three weeks of being turned inside out from experiences, I don’t hesitate for a second when I am invited along on this visit. As the first group tucks through the doorway of the temple into darkness, I wait my turn in the courtyard, watching the wind lead the shadows from a line of drying shirts in a dance against the temple wall. When it is our turn, my colleague and I pull off our shoes and step inside. The priest, a thin, graying man sitting cross-legged on the floor, smiles at us. Surrounded by piles of old telephone books and newspapers, he signals to us to take a seat on a low bench in front of him. To his right, at the corner of an altar that faces the doorway, are a pile of yellow and orange marigold heads, somehow still sounding the pluck they released when snapped from their stems. That pluck is now part of the past, present and future that this sacred space holds, and it feels more comforting than close.

The guru doesn’t ask why I’ve come—maybe because he assumes I seek what the others do. I’m glad he doesn’t ask because I’m not sure what I would say. I’m without direction these days, and thus without answers. Besides, if my search for my birth family has taught me anything, it’s that answers don’t necessarily bring resolution, or peace, and sometimes it’s better not to speak first but instead to listen. I return his gaze for a second, wondering if he can read minds, and then chide myself for being silly. I know very little about Hinduism, and with this acknowledgement, I’m back on the Midwestern prairie, a child raised in a strict Lutheran household with little understanding of any religion not my own. When I was young, I could count on one hand the number of people I knew who were not Lutheran, let alone Christian, and in fact, I was so wary even of Catholics that when a Catholic boy joined my Lutheran grade school, I avoided going near him out of fear that Mary idolatry—that is what we called it—might rub off on me. Years later, after becoming Catholic myself, my mother was so hurt that we didn’t speak again for several months. One of the last things she asked before silence drew a curtain around us is what would your birth mother think? I knew next to nothing about my birth mother then except that she, a farm girl raised Lutheran, had found her way to Lutheran Child and Family Services in the suburbs of Chicago and that agency had helped to arrange the adoption of my twin sister and me. She had requested that her twins be raised in a Christian family, but she did not specify the brand. And yet, I felt guilt at my mother’s words—guilt at not only hurting the mother I knew and loved but the one I did not know and also loved.

I feel no guilt in the priest’s temple, only a curious expectancy. As he picks up his well-worn astrology books, he asks for my birth date, then the time of my birth. My mind suddenly clutters with the times when my four children were born: 11:21 a.m., 3:31 a.m., 9:29 p.m., 12:32 a.m. I reach into that whirl and grab my own, 2 p.m., no, 2:08 p.m. I was born first, then my twin sister at 2:10 p.m., both of us pulled quickly from a long wound in our birth mother’s belly that she carried with her after we were gone. The priest drags a finger over the Sanskrit in his book, as I used to drag my finger over my birth mother’s scar in my mind, then finds what he is looking for. “Wednesday,” he tells me. “You were born on a Wednesday. Yes?” He is not so much asking as confirming, but I don’t know for sure. I only know the few details I was told and the ones my sister and I took without asking from a file we discovered in our parents’ basement. Even then, when we met our birth parents as adults, some of the truths we thought we knew turned into falsehoods. Some of what they knew also turned out to be untrue. At this point—I am talking again in my head to the spiritual leader—whatever is there in your books is as much true as anything else. As if on cue, he pulls another book from his feet, then another, his hand brushing letters and numbers along the pages as he consults. “You’re a teacher,” he tells me. I nod. “Go as far as you can,” he says. “You can do it. All of it.” I think of my three graduate degrees and nod again. “Your birth is good, happy,” he smiles, delivering the news as if it is what everyone hopes to hear. No, I think, you don’t know, but before I can finish my thought, he stops, frowns slightly. “There is something else,” he starts. “There are, maybe, two mothers? There is something good, but also something else.”

He looks up at me for half a second, but I don’t look back, not at him, not at my colleague, not anywhere. I think instead of marigold heads—we popped them from my mother’s garden when were young, just to hear the satisfying snap that came from their untethering—and hold my breath. Oh, yes, there are two mothers. There is good, and there is also something else. What I don’t think: How does he know? I’m not here for that. I am here as a stigma, exposed, her petals peeled back, open.

After some time, he puts down his books and breathes a list to me: Green is your color. Wear green. Mercury is your planet, Budha grah, the smallest one, the one closest to the sun. “The hot one,” I murmur, and he looks at me before speaking again. He tells me that I want everyone to be good, that I yearn for goodness, that I wait for it, but that when, after so much waiting, it does not come, I bite. “Like a scorpion,” he tells me. You bite like a scorpion. Here’s the thing, though: A baby scorpion cannot survive without its mother. She carries it on her back until it molts. A baby scorpion needs its mother to shed its first skin, to live to shed more skins, to pierce its prey with venom. The scorpion bites when it is hungry, and when it is provoked, threatened. Any baby scorpion who lives, despite not having its mother, has bucked the rules of its own species.

The priest tears a page from one of the telephone books beside him and makes a little paper envelope that reminds me of the pointed paper hats we used to fold in grade school. He lights a small square of camphor, adds a few nubs of cloves and another page from the telephone book. The paper turns to ashes, which he moves around the dish in quick patterns. When he is finished, he pulls some of the ashes from the dish and touches my forehead, marking my head like a Catholic priest on Ash Wednesday, only not with a cross but a circle, wholeness, original perfection, a bindi made of dust. He tucks the rest of the ashes into the paper envelope. These are to take with me. If I need them, I can sprinkle a few in a glass of water and drink them, he says. That will help right things again.

Before we go, the priest tells me that my star is positioned so perfectly on this very day that he cannot let me leave without a special prayer. In turn, I cannot refuse the honor, so I step over to the altar where he lights a candle. Follow me, he motions, and places the marigold petals in the bowl of my outstretched palm. Every so often, as he prays, he directs me to bow and toss a few petals at the foot of the altar. I bow and toss, bow and toss until my hands are empty and the prayer is finished. The priest opens his eyes and smiles at me, shows me his goodness, which, he is right, I do so desire. And I thank him for it.

In the car, there is a maybe an air of satisfaction, or peace, or whatever cleansing come from ritual, but really, I am too caught up in my own story to read the others. The women ask me, What did you think? How do you feel? I tell them the truth:

It made me sad.
Why? Why?
Because he was right. 

Because there are two mothers. From the beginning, there have always been two mothers. And that beginning was both good and dark. And maybe, when your birth is caught between two places like that, maybe you carry forever in yourself both light and darkness.  Maybe you yearn for good, and when you cannot find it, you bite. The restlessness I have been trying to shake settles back over me like a net. This must be my life: this continual search for a balance of opposites. The light, and the darkness. The good, and the something else. The one mother, and the other.

On the way out of town, we stop at a shop for lunch and order mugs of chai that are made with a masala so hot my mouth is overcome with spice. After I met my birth mother, she told me that she loved spicy food, so much so that she carries a bottle of hot sauce in her purse. Me, too! I practically yelped. We don’t look anything alike, but this was a resemblance. I wonder if my birth mother would like this tea. Would it be too hot for her? What if I opened my envelope and dropped in a few of the ashes? What if I swirled them around in my mug and held it to my lips? I don’t know who I’m asking—myself, the guru, one of the two mothers—or even if I’m looking for answers. I’m not looking for answers. But there are two mothers. And one of them, the one who gave birth to me, she couldn’t carry me on her back. So, I climbed aboard another mother and waited to shed my skin. I climbed aboard another mother and lived to love and bite.

The priest’s blessing still dotting my forehead, I sit on a stool in that shop on the edge of Durban, thinking of the light and the dark, the good and the something else, thinking of the two mothers—there are two mothers–as my mouth holds Mercury’s fire.


Jenny Spinner is an associate professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches journalism and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, Writing on the Edge, Mid-American Review, and on NPR’s All Things Considered, among others. She is co-author, along with her twin sister Jackie Spinner, of Tell Them I Didn’t Cry (Scribner’s, 2006).  Her latest book, Of Women in the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in November. Her blog Twinprints: An Adoption Story chronicles her experiences searching for and finding her birth family.  Those experiences, and opportunities to meet others in the adoption triad, continue to inspire and humble her.


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