My Adventures in the Matriarchy

I’m not talking about a fairytale matriarchy from long ago and far away. I’m talking about a matriarchy here and now in northern California. I live in one, though I imagine that some might say that it’s not a true matriarchy. Maybe not, but as far as I’m concerned it’s as close to a true matriarchy as I’m likely to get in my own life, unless I move to China and live among the Mosuo women who practice Tibetan Buddhism or to Indonesia and live with the Minangkabau women.

I’ve known about matriarchy and patriarchy since boyhood when I read Fredrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the StateRobert Briffaut’s The Mothers: a Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions and Robert Graves Hercules, My Shipmate which offered seductive descriptions of sex. Or so I remember. By the time I was a teenager I was converted to the idea of matriarchy, in large part because my father was a tyrannical patriarch. I identified with my mother, who was an artist, but I also inherited some of the bravado of my dad who was a lawyer, and the machismo of my older brother who was nearly always on the prowl. Dad and older brother became my role models. I had a lot to learn when women’s liberation rolled into my own little life in 1968 and upset my patterns of behavior. Someone once told me, “The real beneficiaries of women’s liberation were men.” That’s been true in my case. That whole movement freed me to be someone I otherwise would not have been, and still retain my manhood.

“My” matriarch owns the property —all eight acres—where I live and all the houses—five of them—that dot the landscape. The matriarch’s daughter, who also lives on the same property and who isn’t married, but has a live-in lover, will inherit everything when the matriarch dies. Daughter refers to her mother as “Madam.” All the major decisions and many of the minor ones are decided by the two women. I’m here by their good graces. Not long ago, my male landlord evicted me from the house where I lived for 16 years. The matriarchy kindly took me in. I have a small bedroom room with a view. It doubles as my workspace.

Our time together over the past few months has been complicated by COVID-19. The matriarch and I spend more time together than we’d spend if COVID-19 hadn’t arrived. Sometimes we get under one another’s feet and on one another’s nerves, and also bump into one another in the night. My housemate is not allowed (doctor’s orders) to drive a car. She’s stuck at home and is often restless, irritable and angry. I don’t blame her. She tells me I’ll probably feel as she does when I reach her age.

My matriarch is now in her mid-80s and is sliding slowly into full-blown dementia. Her memories of things that happened yesterday and the day before are fading fast, though not her memories of her girlhood in the State of Washington during World War II, when U.S. soldiers were stationed all around her, depriving her and her classmates of their playground. She also remembers that the local Japanese farmers were rounded up and sent to detention camps all over California. The Japanese farms, she tells me, were beautiful, orderly and well-run, unlike the farms owned and operated by the descendants of European immigrants, including her parents.

“My” matriarch is named after the Norse god of thunder and lighting. The letter “a” was added to Thor making her Thora. At 85, she can still summon thunder and lightning and lay down rules that pertain to time and space, which I am obliged to follow, but that she usually doesn’t. With the onset of dementia and the loss of memory, it’s not surprising that she feels that life itself is slipping away from her. Instead of letting go, she holds onto things and to people, including her daughter, tighter and tighter. My own mother did the same thing.

At times I can feel that I’m in an autocratic matriarchy and that any infraction on my part will lead to expulsion. I don’t want to be banished, though I also rebel against the rules in little ways. I don’t always turn off the lights, as I’m told to do, though I always turn off the water in the garden that she forgets to turn off. I do try to adhere to the rules and not encroach on Thora’s territory which is everywhere, except in “my” room which contains all my possessions: clothes, shoes, computer, printer, pills, books, bed, cell phone and the rug, which I purchased in India and that adds color to my space.

I pay $475 a month, which includes rent and utilities, and the use of the stove, oven, refrigerator, laundry, clothesline and clothespins and any of the three bathrooms in the house. I don’t smoke or consume alcohol so there are no issues on those grounds. I use Thora’s electric kettle to boil water for tea and sometimes forget to return it to its proper place. I have been scolded several times. I’m getting better. I don’t like Thora’s thunder and lightning.

Her matriarchy isn’t the first I have inhabited. My mother, Mildred, was one of five sisters—Sarah, Lillian, Bella and Ada, some of them born in Russia before the 1917 revolution and some in Brooklyn, New York. Their mother, Ida Quitkin, survived her husband, Aaron, who worked as a bricklayer and mason until the Depression of the 1930s. He went downhill fast and never recovered. Ida kept a close watch on everything and everyone in the two-story brick apartment building Aaron built and on everything and everyone on East 96th Street outside her window where she sat all day.

My aunts were married at one time or another and had male husbands, but property, including the family samovar from Russia, was passed down from mother to daughters. The husbands seemed to be largely irrelevant to the reign of the Quitkin women, all of whom had jobs, saved money, traveled widely, read voraciously and remained true to the socialist cause they inherited from their working class parents. My aunts revered Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug, who ran successfully for the U.S. Congress under the slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” They also adored Eugene V. Debs and Vito Marcantonio, who represented East Harlem in Congress and supported civil rights and those of working people. They detested Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

In the 1930s and 1940s they were Reds, believing that a revolution would sweep across the U.S. and overturn the wealthy and the powerful. In the 1960s and 1970s when I assumed that a revolution would upend the nation, they encouraged me to be level headed, not give up my job as a teacher or station myself permanently on the barricades. I did not listen. I was arrested. I lost my job. I came to northern California and found myself in the thick of a feminist community. The members of one group had a speculum and were examining their vaginas and cervix. They were also examining all the aspects of the patriarchy.

Years after my mother and her sisters died, I met another matriarch. Anne Teller owned and operated a large organic farm, Oak Hill, employed dozens of workers, mostly Latinos, and supported environmental causes. I adopted her and she adopted me, much to the annoyance of her sons and daughters who complained at times that I knew more about their mother and the farm then they knew. Every matriarchy needs an outsider, not a member of the immediate family, to preserve history and memory and keep people honest. (I wrote a book titled Field Days about Anne and her farm.) When she died in her mid-90s her daughters inherited the land and the buildings. They run the farm now.

Thora sometimes confides in me. Several times she has told me, “I want to die. I just don’t know how to do it.” When she told her doctor her intention to end her life, the doctor asked, “What method did you have in mind?” Thora said, “The gas oven.” Fortunately it’s electric. It’s a mad, mad, mad world I live in and sometimes hysterically funny.

If I am a confidant, I am also a spy. I report back to Thora’s daughter. That’s probably a good idea since Thora is forgetful. She also hallucinates and imagines things. Once she woke me at 4 a.m. to tell me that thieves were outside the house, ready to break in and steal stuff. I went into the big backyard and saw no one. On another occasion, she told me that helicopters had circled the property the previous night, looking for escaped convicts. There was no evidence of that.

Often it’s not possible to have a conversation with Thora. An hour later, she might not remember anything I’ve said to her about shopping for food and watering the vegetable garden and the flowers which she loves and that buoy her spirits. I try to be as patient as I can in circumstances that test me more than I’ve ever been tested before. Thora and I are not in a relationship, and at the same time we are in a relationship if only because we inhabit the same house. I have known her for 40 years. Her husband, Bill, who died recently, was a lawyer, an airplane pilot, a friend and a marijuana aficionado. I flew with him on many occasions all over northern California and up to Oregon. Thora remained on the ground and kept the farm up and running. Now I do much of that. The farm is my salvation. The matriarchy is the air I breathe. All things being equal I think I’d rather live in a matriarchy not a patriarchy. Women seem to care about life and living things more than men. But don’t get me wrong. I still spend quality time with my male pals, many of them blue collar workers. We used to watch Monday Night Football together. I hope we will again. My men’s writing group now Zooms. It feels great to bond with them once a month.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.