In the book of life, the decline and death of one's mother is a significant chapter, and when it ends, it is also the end of any hope that things will change for the better. Frankly, I had a very complicated relationship with my difficult mother and I was trying unsuccessfully to make sense of it after her recent death. I figured that traveling was as good a way to heal as any I know, so my husband Paul and I headed for southern Louisiana.
I tried to distract myself by eating boudin—a pork, rice, and spice sausage—and going to a Cajun dance hall. I tried to drown my sorrow in gumbo and crawfish etouffée. But my mind was on fire with memories of senseless, purposeless mistreatment and no amount of food could put the fire out.
I tried nature, which can be such a balm for the soul. On a Grosse Savanne Eco Tour, sailing between freshwater marshes and coastal prairies, I marveled at a glossy ibis who seemed to turn iridescent green and purple when the sun shone on it. My eyes darted to follow the flight patterns of dragonflies and my ears were attuned to the orchestral noises of birds in the trees. But no sounds, no wildlife, could eradicate the concatenation of images in my mind about the loving mother I longed for, and the real, palpable mother I actually had, who was now gone.
One day, we were on an Airboats & Alligators tour, sitting on a flat-bottomed boat with an aircraft-like propeller, next to owner Ben Welch. Welch, who is an alligator farmer, explained that he flies over marshland in a helicopter and finds alligator nests with eggs. Many eggs are destroyed by predators and weather, and his job is to take the eggs, carefully preserve them, and hatch them into baby gators. "Ninety percent of them do not go into bags and clothes," he says. "In nature, one to two per cent of the eggs survive. We have a 90 to 95 percent survival rate."
I listened attentively when he talked about mother alligators, because I had mothering on my mind. "The mothers always come after us when we go for the eggs. Sometimes they flank you or jump you," he explained. "They have jumped into my lap, eaten my boots, hissed at me."
"Boy," I commented with secret envy, "those alligators are sure protective of their babies."
"Nope," said the affable Welch. "Alligators are not nurturing mothers. They don't care if the babies live or die. The only animals that protect their young are mammals, like us. Alligators protect their nest because it's theirs. An alligator mother will eat all the babies if conditions are bad—like a drought or no water. She's just a wild animal after all."
So now I knew for sure. I had an alligator mother. And there was some comfort in realizing that I was not alone; that I could, in fact, relate to a class of animals whose experiences were like my own.
One of the other passengers on the airboat, a Southern lady, overheard my conversation with Welch, and she chimed in, "I can relate. My own mother was a street angel and a house devil."
I began to cackle when I heard the colorful Southern expression. It was the first time I had laughed in weeks. Something in my heart lightened when I discovered my link to alligators, and could understand my mother in the context of the animal kingdom.
So imagine my surprise when, visiting the Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum in Houma, in a section about alligators, I came upon an information panel called "Mama Loves Her Babies." My eyes grew bigger than golf balls as I read that a pregnant mother alligator carefully builds a grass nest to lay her clutch of forty or more eggs, and stands guard over her future children.
In August or September, a chirping sound means the babies are ready to hatch. Mama uncovers the nest to welcome her precious babies into the world. Sometimes she carries them to water in her mouth. Young alligators remain with the mother for up to three years, growing a foot a year.
Wait a minute. I thought alligators weren't good mothers. But there it was, in black and white: they sacrifice, nurture and, presumably, love and care for their children. I guess I didn't have an alligator mother after all.
A day later, we embarked on A Cajun Man's Swamp Cruise with singer/songwriter Rob "Black" Guidry. We sailed through jungle-like foliage, including three-foot-wide elephant plant leaves. Black obviously had done this cruise a gazillion times, and his rap, while interesting, sounded canned. Until he came to the part about alligators. Even though I accepted that I did not have an alligator mother, I was still curious about those mamas.
"There's a mother here guarding her nest, and I call her Mama Gator," Black announced. "It took me three days to train her to come and feed."
He began to make a gravelly call that sounded, to my ears, like "aghghgh Mama." Sure enough, the mama came swimming toward our boat.
"Her eyesight is poor, so I have to place the food in her mouth," he explained, as he lowered chicken on a pole into the mama's mouth. According to Black, an alligator hears by vibrations on the water, which is why he makes a low growl. "She associates my voice with chicken, like the ice cream man."
He paused for a moment and then continued, "An alligator is not a nurturing mother. The babies hang around her for maybe one or two days. Then they run off on their own. They get lost. They get in trouble."
And as my mouth swung open, Black began to play the accordion and howl a few songs to the accompaniment of facial grimaces: "mee-oh—my-oh, son of a gun, we're gonna have such fun, down on the bayou."
The other tourists on the boat joined in, but I was lost in thought. Maybe I did have an alligator mother. Maybe I was wrong to snap at the bait of a loving alligator mom. Perhaps my mother and the baby alligators' mother were one and the same.
For the rest of the trip, I was obsessed with finding one clear, true answer to my question: did I have an alligator mother?
I emailed Susan Daigle from Alligator Chateau. Although we never went there, I was intrigued by the information in their promotional material: "The Gator Chateau is home to rescued, orphaned baby alligators as well as mature alligators. We foster the gators until they are able to be released back into their natural habitat. Our alligator docent will educate you in all things Alligator! Our babies are hand fed, they don't bite, and you can hold them and take your picture!"
Surely Susan knew the correct answer to my question, and I was buoyed when she emailed me back quickly with additional information. "A mother gator can have from 30 to 42 eggs. She sits on these eggs during incubation time, constantly moving more active eggs closer to the top of the nest. This provides them with more heat and they are considered the stronger babies. When the baby gators come out of the eggs, the mother takes them into her mouth. Females have a pouch under their tongues. She keeps them there usually a week or more. This gives the babies time to transform from rolled up snake-like creatures to free-standing gators. Mothers keep using the pouch for transportation and defense, keeping the baby gators for as long as six months."
I paused in my reading, moved by Susan's certainty about the mother gators' devotion. "They are born totally defenseless and need Mom to feed liquid regurgitation until they have teeth large enough to feed themselves," she continued. "The mother gator is very protective of her babies, who will live with her up until about two years. By then they have teeth large enough for hunting independently and the platelets on their back provide some protection. Mother gators are very maternal, yet as the babies become old enough to survive on their own, she will abandon them. However, just as in any species, you do have environmental issues that can alter the first two years of the baby gator's life."
When I went to sleep, I had dreams of snapping alligator jaws, and mothers who love and nurture or abandon their babies. When I awoke in the morning, I had an answer to my question. It was as clear as the alligator tooth I was now wearing around my neck.
I did have an alligator mother. She was caring, cruel, indifferent, nurturing, rejecting, sacrificing. In the grand scheme of things, I was supposed to understand that mothers are complex, whether alligator or human, and mine, who was gone forever, was no exception.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer, speaker, and workshop leader, and the author of The Spoon From Minkowitz and Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel.
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