When I was 22 and just out of college, I joined the Peace Corps and was shipped off to West Africa. After a few months of training, a Peace Corps driver dropped me and my few possessions off in a remote village of 900 people, which was to be my home for the next two years. Fortunately, I was able to talk to the handful of people of my village who spoke French, which was the official language. Everyone else spoke a language called Bambara, and learning it became an all-consuming endeavor for me. People were amazingly kind and it’s surprising how much you can communicate with only rudimentary language skills, but I yearned for more complex conversations.
So learn the language I did, and I learned the dynamics of the village and made friends. Still, people thought I was a little strange. Why would I leave the comfort of America (though I explained that I was not entirely from America) and move to their country, alone, and live in a mud hut and eat millet and work in the fields? It didn’t quite add up, and though I formed some wonderful relationships, I was regarded as a bit of an oddity.
Then my parents came to visit. The trip from Costa Rica was long and expensive, but my mother had her heart set on visiting me there. So they made the trek out to my village, and we spent many evenings just hanging out in my front yard, drinking tea and chatting with anyone who came by–which was just about everyone, since the visitors were quite the attraction. And during these evenings of easy conversation, as I interpreted for my parents, I heard my friends and neighbors whisper to each other, “Listen, she calls her father ‘Dad.’ She calls her mother ‘Ma.’” They were fascinated by what I called my parents, and this fascination did not let up for several weeks. Meeting my parents, watching us interact with each other and hearing what names I called them made me more relatable, less foreign. In a culture where family ties mean everything, seeing where I came from gave people some insight that they had previously lacked.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a teacher. For a time, I even thought I would go into special education. I was fascinated by the subject and read everything I could about the subject, mostly books by special education teachers who wrote about their experiences in the classroom. One of the books included the story of a little boy of about six or seven, a boy who had autism. And I remember his mother in the story, whose one desire was for her son to someday call her “Mama.”
Two decades later, both of my own sons were diagnosed with autism, and I panicked when I thought of that story. What if they never called me mama? Though well-meaning family and friends assured me that they would be just fine, those reassurances rang hollow. My boys could easily point to Mama in a picture, but they never used the word “Mama” to get my attention. They never called me anything.
When Secondo suddenly began to preface his sentences with “Mama” last year, he was nearly five years old and it came as a complete surprise. But I was even more surprised when, after that, he began to call me “Mamá.” Pronounced as you would in Spanish, with the accent on the second syllable. I knew exactly where he got it. Children with autism are often echolalic, and repeat lines they’ve heard before somewhere else. When Secondo speaks, it’s usually obvious to me if he’s repeating something he’s heard on TV, or at school, or a book I’ve read out loud. “Mamá,” I knew, came from our Costa Rican babysitter’s daughter, who usually tagged along and was constantly asking her mother Mamá Mamá Mamá this or that. He mimicked her intonation perfectly.
After autism, I have become as fascinated as my former neighbors were by what people call their parents. I always called my mother the more modern “Mami,” or “Ma” for short, though if I was talking about her in English, I would refer to her as “Mom.” Now I often call her “Madre mía” when I’m joking around. “Mamita” if I want something. She called her own mother “Mamá,” which I always thought was sweet and quaint. My father was always “Dad,” and though I always referred to him in Spanish as “Papi” or “Pa,” I never called him that to his face. So much meaning is wrapped up in the names I call my parents–the love I have for them, our different cultures, our relationships, our languages.
I never expected to be called “Mamá,” even before autism. I suppose I assumed that since we lived in the U.S., I would be “Mom.” I listen as Secondo alternates between “Mama” and “Mamá,” and as Primo now follows his brother’s lead and imitates him. Their teacher refers to me as “Mommy,” and they repeat the name after her, thoughtfully, as if trying it out for size.
To be honest, I stopped worrying about my boys calling me “Mama” a while ago, realizing that it was not the most important thing in the world. But I love that it’s finally happened, and am curious to see how my name evolves.
What do your children call you? Where does the name come from? I really am fascinated.