In the centre of an old and prestigious university, in the centre of an island proudly referred to as the acropolis of the new world, sits majestically, a sculpture of a persona, an extremely beautiful woman.
Being in the centre of many things, she is herself the centre of attraction. This centredness of this sculpture appears to be a sign less of its intrinsic worth than of the kind of worth that it actually offers – an inviting, comforting and accessible persona, if a silent figure, more companionable, with both young and old paying her homage, and ordinary people and the elite sharing spaces around her. To be around her is to be ready to be more accommodative, to cherish others and to be more tolerant. Around her, more is expected and more is received. Small wonder she is called the alma mater.
Alma mater is a Latin expression, in English, a nourishing and bountiful mother, used by the Romans to refer to their pagan goddesses, especially Ceres (the goddess of fertility and maternal love) and Cybele (a mother goddess). The expression was thereafter used by the adherents of Catholicism in the second century to refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the wife of Joseph. Its first use in English was in about 1600 when the University of Cambridge imprinted it on its logo to refer to one’s university. Thus variously, alma mater has pagan roots, Christian adoption and intellectual heritage – hence the allusion to its presence on the campus of the university on the island of many hills.
Like alma mater, mothers too have a multilayered identity. They are simultaneously warm and good-natured while also being feisty and meticulous. This often makes life as their child, as we all have been, affectionate at the best of times, and demanding at its worst. Ordinarily, they are propelled to pave the way for their children’s successful trajectory in life, even as they inculcate in them a consciousness, sensitivity and awareness of a world full of contradictions. Indeed, these are the traits that recall those of every good university as it prepares its graduates for life beyond its lecture halls and laboratories. An obvious notion is then reified – at graduation, universities become alma mater, while mothers are alma mater, instinctively.
Although they are not saints, nor necessarily good parents all the time, nor even role models for all occasions, mothers offer us an arresting tableau of how life is lived, from another parent. In fact, mothers are one part a good characterisation of our human nature, and another part, a synthesis of life’s hope and delicacy as well as love’s complicated power. In biological terms, mothers serve as our point of entry into, and continuation of, our prospective lives. Indeed, in the aria ‘La mamma morta’ (‘They killed my mother’) of an 1896 opera, a mother, optimistically says to her child, “You must live”, even as she herself was dying. You will have to have a heart made of stone not to be pulled deeper into and moved by the aria’s haunting depiction of
Intuitively, mothers also give their children an identity, notwithstanding what their children’s last names may be. (For instance, one medieval nation reckons its children’s automatic membership of that nation only from the child’s mother.) Anecdotally, it is often this way with mothers – that to see a mother raise a child to become a useful member of society is to be reminded of how a seamstress, a woman, perhaps a mother as well, would take a new piece of fabric and weave it together to make a beautiful functional garment; to witness the sweetness of a mother’s temperament is to experience her magnetism; to observe a mother perform any outwardly mundane task is to be enthralled by the result of that task; to behold a mother’s organisational skills is to marvel at her resourcefulness; to be at the receiving end of a mother’s emotive nature is to see the cogency of her senses; and to fully understand a mother is to acknowledge that she sees through the confusions and pretensions of others, that everybody else admires. In fact, look up powerful themes of human life, love and mortality, and I am almost certain you will find the picture of a mother.
Mothers are often at their best on small things. To illustrate this provocative claim, let me seek inspiration from the sculpture – in fact, the alma mater – on the campus mentioned above. The mother, or alma mater if you will, is made of bronze – a hard but fusible metal – signifying her strength and hardiness to confront the pressures of life. On the mother’s lap sits an open book, the Bible – the book of life – illustrating her ability to give life-long lessons. Her arms are outstretched upward, to reinforce the surety that with her, and for her children, social mobility is a constant engagement. While her left hand is open – poised for the behavioural discipline of her children no doubt – the right hand holds a sceptre of wisdom, the metaphor for knowledge and skill from her to her children, which often follow a rigorous upbringing. And each of the two armchairs beside her has a lamp, one being the lamp of wisdom (sapientia) and the other, of learning (doctrina), both necessary to illuminate the pathways of her journey of life and that of her children. In the end, while it is a joy to gaze admiringly upon her fair countenance and end it there, it is hard not to appreciate the single most powerful symbolism of this sculpture – being the artistic monument for a real mother, of flesh and blood, as the one who is able to render devotion, resilience and selfless service to her children against life’s messiness. Happy Mothers’ Day!
BONGI D.D.M RADIPATI*
*Radipati is a contributor to Mmegi