We called our mother Mamma, not pronounced Momma in the American way, but mummah, as it sounded in Iceland, with a pause on the combined m’s. She forbade our calling her “Mommy,” the indignity of the American word implied by her mocking tone as she said it. When I was small, I only ever called our mother Mamma. The second syllable turns upward in my memory, holding the shape of a question, of hope and home.
When I was little, Iceland was the scent of sulfurous water that clung to my father’s skin after he returned from a trip there. My mother’s island home was the smell of smoked leg of lamb—a frozen red haunch wrapped in foil that had been smuggled past customs, then softly boiled to anchor our feast on Christmas Eve. Iceland was a dragon-shaped map on our dining room wall. And Iceland was the place that held my mother’s name, simply and crisply: Mamma.
So “Mamma” was the answer I gave when a neighbor in our DC suburb asked me my mother’s name. He re-introduced himself to her, and they laughed at my not knowing her real name. Embarrassed by my ignorance, my mother taught me, syllable by syllable, how to say her name properly. She wrote down every letter, and her handwriting, so elegant and even, was itself a lesson in correctness. She had me repeat her name over and over until it rolled off my tongue with sharp r’s and a crisp Icelandic rhythm. Most grown-ups, including my father, called her Ragna, using open vowels and mushy r’s. But I knew how to say her full name: Ragnhildur Gudrun Finnbjornsdottir Ellis.
Ragnhildur: Fighting Woman.
My mother fought incorrectness, both in pronunciation and in behavior. She fought the dulling ordinariness of American culture, with its casual manners and sloppy clothing. At night, through cycles of peacefulness and of combat, she simultaneously fought my father and alcohol, her berating voice rising and falling for hours. Then came the thump of her shoulder hitting the wall after my father shoved her hard and staggered to the front door and escape. She fought to hide the bruises, but showed them to me when I came out of my room to try to take care of her. Year in, and year out, she was Fighting Woman.
She fought hard for the steady sanity she gained in her sixties. Now that I can see the pattern of illness in her descendants, diagnoses lined up like breadcrumbs in the woods, I know she fought cyclical depression and psychosis. When I was growing up, I sometimes thought she was a monster. But the monsters were in her head, and, as strong as she was, she couldn’t defeat them.
11 replies on “Fighting Woman”
Strong stuff! Good work Jenny-Lynn.
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Strong sensual detail and what a fitting name for her, what a fitting first essay!
Thanks ever so much!
Looking forward to more of the Icelandic sagas. . . .
The exquisite description of the concern for propriety juxtaposed with the cycle of abuse and fear made me weep for the 5 year old Jenny.
Beautifully written Jenny.
A compassionate, mature, loving characterization of your mother
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Thought i would just check in on the first line of Fighting Woman while sitting at the mundane car repair place. So compelling I had to leave the din of car repair to find a quiet outdoor spot to read it over and over.
Brilliant. Thank you, Jenny-Lynn. More, please.
Ruth, your kindness and enthusiasm are sustaining, always.
Ooh, this is so good. I am captivated by your vivid descriptions and the enigma of the mother, and the impressions of Iceland. I can’t wait to read your memoir!
Thanks so much! It’s a pleasure writing with you. I’ll ask you to blurb my book when you’re (even more) famous.