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A word for my mother, a familial powerhouse

As the third anniversary of my mother's death approaches, the memory of the old, sick person I knew at the end of her life is being replaced by the lively, intelligent woman I knew for most of mine. I can now see the slightly crooked tooth that gave her a distinctive smile, hear her delightful laugh, smell her cooking and feel the weight of all that she has bestowed on me and my five siblings.

A particularly special memory of my mother is that she loved words. To her, words were candy to be acquired, savored and shared. She was an avid reader, did the crossword puzzle every day and was eager to learn new words. My mother was the child of Italian immigrants who never went to school and could not read or write in any language. This is likely the reason why she stressed the importance of education to us, and why words were so special to her.

At the dinner table, my mother taught us new words that she found in Reader's Digest magazine. It was here where I learned that loquacious means talkative, that a person with a lugubrious disposition is not very good company, and that a laurel is a good thing, provided that you don't rest on it. She often told us that if you use a word three times, it is yours. This rule has stuck with me to my adulthood, and I have encouraged my own kids to follow it, as well.

I came across a big word found in the lexicon of cell biologists that I wish I could tell to my mother. The word is mitochondrion. It reminds me of her because it has many syllables but, as it turns out, this word is appropriate for all mothers for at least two reasons.

Textbooks refer to the mitochondrion as the powerhouse of the cell because it makes packets of energy that our bodies need to do everything from run a marathon to blink our eyes. A powerhouse describes a mother so well. My mother was a tremendous source of maternal energy that made our large family run. She charted out our chores, made sure that we looked sharp for school, kept our home impeccably clean and insisted that we all be present for the wonderful dinners she prepared each night. Most importantly, my mother was adored by my father, the woman with whom he shared the work and joy of building a marriage and a family.

The relationship between mothers and the mitochondrion is not just metaphorical. Whereas most of the DNA in our cells is found in one place, there is a small circular piece of it found in the mitochondrion that we inherit from our mother. There is no paternal counterpart. Studying that little circle has allowed scientists to trace the history of motherhood, and learn where and when the first mother lived.

That mother, Eve if you will, did not look like she is depicted in Renaissance paintings. Eve lived in Africa. Eve was black. My mother never had friends with Eve's complexion, but she taught us about equality, fairness and respect. She was a product of her generation, and I now know she struggled to learn these lessons for herself as she was teaching them to us. But learning on the job is what a mother does every day because she is, well, a powerhouse.

In hindsight, it is now clear that my mother began to die when she lost interest in reading. It seems especially cruel that in her final years, my mother -- like her parents -- could no longer read or write. But that mother occupies less and less of my memory. I now recall a powerful woman who would have been delighted to learn a new five-syllable word and make it her own.


Mark O'Brian, a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo, remembers his mother with love.