who rules the roost

Gorillas: Who Rules the Roost?


I recently returned from a trip to South Africa and Uganda where I had the privilege of spending time with some amazing Mountain Gorilla families in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  Mountain Gorilla families vary in size, but average about 25 members.  It was explained to us that they are ruled by the one silverback male who reigns over an assortment of females (sometimes 8 – 10) and their offspring. A female’s primary role is to tend to her one baby (twins are very rare) of which she will have one every 4 years or so. She will not conceive while breast-feeding. When  young males grow to be black backs and then young silver backs themselves, they will either fight the existing leader for his position in the family, or make off with a few of the females (or sometimes pick off a few from another family) to start his own clan.  Nobody needs to go hunting as the gorillas are vegetarians, sitting for hours and hours feasting on their favorite leaves and stems.

BUT… what if the researchers have it upside down? What if a Mountain Gorilla family is basically a band of sisters, enjoying days of mothering their babies and hanging out together, using the males in the tribe for protection and mating?  What if we thought about it that way?  The mothers and babies I witnessed were living such loving, peaceful lives whereas the males had to worry about their place in the hierarchy.  If one silverback didn’t overthrow another for top role in the family, he would be wandering solo in the forest.  But for the females, days were relatively simple: eat, sleep, play, groom.  We would all be perfect mothers if the distractions of the world were kept at bay…..

Other primates that share title of “ape” with gorillas are chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and, well, humans.

Bonobos are similar looking to chimpanzees and their natural habitat are the forests of the Congo,  not many miles from the forest in which I spent time with my gorillas.  A pioneering primate researcher named Amy Parish from San Diego has studied them for decades and her work concludes that bonobos society is dominated by the females.  Female bonding works to control individual males despite the males’ larger size.  They choose their own mates and grab the best food for themselves.  huh….

It is also widely held that other matriarchal animal species are:  bees, elephants, killer whales, and lions.  I find it interesting to look at the types of societies animal species create and why… Now I am thinking about the assumptions that we have traditionally made about these societies.  Patriarchal ? Matriarchal? Maybe we shouldn’t assign human labels…



Have you read the Book of Ruth? Ruth is the ultimate daughter-in-law in the Jewish Bible. Even after her husband dies, Ruth remains with her mother-in-law, Naomi, refusing the request that she return to her own people. Ruth adopts Naomi’s religion and travels with her to the land of Judah. Ruth and Naomi have a special bond of friendship. Ruth is depicted as the first convert to Judaism in the bible and interestingly, it is from her line that David, the great king is descended.

A convert to Judaism myself, I feel a connection to Ruth. Not only is she the first convert, but a revered and important figure in the history of the Jewish people. To me, the story of Ruth is a testament to Jews always welcoming converts and was partly responsible for me publicly owning my new religion.

Besides being a convert, Ruth is a true friend and source of support for Naomi, her mother-in-law. In Eden, Ruth is the consummate daughter in law to Sadie. She stays by Sadie’s side even after Robert dies, and coincidentally it is her son that is the family’s financial savior, purchasing the home, and keeping it in the family.

Being a daughter-in-law to people who have no daughters of their own, I also feel that connection to Ruth. In my case, it was not my mother-in-law who leaned in me for support, it’s been my father-in-law. I am his surrogate daughter. Even in this modern age, when my husband is willing to pitch in on an equal basis, there are things his father just feels more comfortable coming to me for. Is it because I am a woman? Because I am more comfortable talking about emotions and relationships? Because we share the vocation of writing? Because he just assumes I’m more available to help with domestic and medical matters? We have a friendship and share points of view that are not shared by my husband.

Being a daughter or son-in-law, is often a delicate dance. I certainly stumbled and mis-stepped in the beginning, but figuring it out, and disproving the caricature of in-law as “out-law” has resulted in one of my most satisfying relationships.



What gets passed down in a family is an important theme in Eden.  What do we inherit? Money, possessions? Possibly, but usually not without angst.  Behaviors and opinions are also passed down, for better or worse. The obvious things like physical traits are easy for the outside world to see.  What is not apparent are our feelings about ourselves, what we like about ourselves and dislike about ourselves. We inherit recipes and histories, oral and written. We inherit a way of doing things, a set of expectations, approval and disapproval. We inherit love, we inherit disappointment. The estate planning and the last will and testament is the least of it!

As we mature and find ourselves wedged in the middle between aging parents and children coming into adulthood, it is a logical time to think about some of these things.  As our closets and basements and attics become depositories for family heirlooms, it is a time to think about how the intangible heirlooms will also get divided up.

Is inheritance a privilege or a responsibility?  Is the younger generation beholden to its elders? Some will walk away from everything, while others will accept their inheritance with gratitude and refashion what they receive to work in their lives.



During my lifetime, the closest thing my family has had to a matriarch was my grandmother, not in the fact that she “ruled” our family but she lived until she was 96, was elegant and stately and was greatly admired by the generations that came after. She was my father’s mother, and come to think of it, she probably was the only one who could influence his thinking with a subtle nod of approval or disapproval.

The first matriarch of the Meister family in my novel, EDEN, is Sadie (Sarah). In the book of Genesis, Sarah, wife of Abraham, was also the first matriarch. Sarah was venerable and beautiful, and it is from her that all Israel is descended. But in true Old Testament fashion, Sarah is also depicted as an imperfect human. It is said that Sarah was a prophetess and knew the way things should play out, but when she insisted Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness, it probably wasn’t her finest hour. One can just imagine her in a jealous snit, putting her foot down with Abraham. The subsequent matriarchs in the book of Genesis are Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah who go on to birth a nation despite their human frailties.

It has always been comforting to me to study Genesis in that it emphasizes that the holiest figures in the Jewish religion are just regular, imperfect, people. And although the book is not without its patriarchs, it is first and foremost a book of matriarchs. The insights of its wives, mothers, and midwives, who often made things happen behind the scenes are responsible for the flourishing of the Jewish people. In addition, the book’s themes of familial struggle, including sibling rivalry, jealousy, and rebelliousness are those that we recognize in our own families today. And although, it is sort of discouraging to think that humans have had the same weaknesses and relationship issues for ages, I find it a consolation.

Patterns in families repeat themselves, in Genesis as well as in real life. The pattern of unplanned pregnancy repeats itself for three generations in the Meister family of my novel. A wise matriarch once said that one shouldn’t be defined by the surprises in her life, but by the way she responds to those surprises. So, possibly, as we evolve as people and as mothers of a people, may we learn from history and try to do a little bit better in our lifetime.

mother and daughter

The Mother – Daughter thing

mother and daughter

I remember how painful our arguments were. Worse than arguments, they were downright fights, awful to even recall now. As a daughter I failed at the mother/daughter relationship. But as a mother, I am getting a second chance. So far I would say it is going pretty well. Annie is 19 and heading off to college in the fall. She is strong and intelligent and driven and caring. My mother would be so proud of her namesake. I am so proud of her. She is kind in a way I never knew how to be. She is by no means perfect, and can have plenty of attitude as any teen might, but she and I are very close. We laugh about the myriad ways I have ‘ruined her’ as in set her up for emotional trauma later in life, but the important thing is that we laugh about it. If I can get this relationship right on the second go round, it will be the greatest accomplishment of my life.