The Cells That Got Away: A Fan’s Notes

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Are we, in fact, becoming our mothers, minute by minute? University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik contemplates the question through a scientific (and poetic) lens.

“You should put your name in,” I said to my daughter Jane the other night at the Stoop show at CenterStage. The host had invited audience members to drop their names into a paper bag in the lobby. Three would be selected to get up and tell impromptu tales after the break. Though 99 percent of the human race would consider this the worst idea ever, Jane went right ahead and filled out a slip. We had a only couple of minutes to talk about what story she might tell; the night’s theme was travel. Last fall, she remembered, her sixth grade science class had gone to Luray Caverns, and somehow she missed the bus. The weird thing was, the teacher had predicted it would happen. “If you’re not there at 7:15 sharp, you’ll be standing on the curb crying,” Ms. Punch told Jane grimly. This seemed so unlikely we joked about it for months. Until it happened.


While a baby is gestating in the womb, reproducing cells created by the union of its parents’ DNA, some of its mother’s cells sneak in through the placenta. Researchers believe this may help to develop the immune system: “We all must learn to tolerate our mothers,” as an immunologist at the University of Wisconsin put it. After a child is born, these maternal cells remain, multiplying on their own.


Once I interviewed an author who had written a book about communicating with your adult children. Both of her sons are successful and well-known and she did not shy from bragging about their accomplishments. In fact she might have written the whole book for this reason. I had to forgive her. From the preschool pageant to the summer camp musical, from the high school football game to the Battle of the Bands, I cast my lot with the crazed parent groupies and enraptured cell-phone paparazzi, brows knit, smiles electric, Facebook pages open wide. There is nothing more fun.


“When he went away each fall to college, it wasn’t so bad,” my friend Jessica told me. But then their son graduated. He came home to spend a week with his parents before leaving with his girlfriend for their new life in Chicago. Jessica and her husband stood on the curb the day the jam-packed car pulled away, the girlfriend holding her cello in her lap. Jessica shouted futile instructions about the rear-view mirror, then burst into tears. Her cells drove off down the road.


My sister Nancy was with my mother the night before she died. Our mother was in a torment, thrashing, moaning, and tearing at her bedclothes for hours. No amount of drugs Nancy administered could calm her. She put off calling me until 6 a.m., when she told me I better get back right away. The only reason I’d returned to Pennsylvania was that Jane was in the second-grade musical that day. I could not miss that play, and I knew my mother would agree. I felt every second pass from the phone call until the end of the second act, when the kids came out to take their bows and the principal began to make his remarks. I streaked past him screaming “You were a great pig, Jane!” as I jogged to the parking lot.

It didn’t surprise me much when my oldest son Hayes turned out to be far more coordinated and athletic than I am, but it is a bit of a head trip that he is better at math and has a far more thorough understanding of finance, money, and the geography of South America.


It was five days after she died when it hit me that it my mother was really gone. My mother, the person who loved me more than anyone else in the world ever will. Who was the only constant thing in my life for 50 years. Who was the president of my fan club. At first, I was in a no-man’s-land of shock and despair. Then I went to a party where my son Vince’s band was playing in the woods. I entered a large clearing lit by a bonfire. Flames illuminated the faces of a few dozen people, some seated on lawn chairs and benches, others standing behind them. All conversation fell silent and all eyes went to the top of the circle as the boys began to play. The notes were as clear as the moon. I was soothed by my own love.


To lose one’s mother is very bad. But to leave one’s children is unimaginable, running against every instinct we have. Jessica’s mother, who lives in Texas, has been gravely ill for so long that she’s never seen her daughter’s home in Washington, DC. One afternoon in the hospital she told Jessica a dream she’d had about her long-dead husband. Then she said, “Do you think you’ll dream about me when I’m gone?” “Of course I will,” Jessica said. “Oh good!” her mother replied. “I’ll finally get to see your house!”


“How did you feel when I got picked to tell my story?” Jane asked me at the Owl Bar, where we’d gone to celebrate after the show. Jane has recently changed her drink from a Shirley Temple to a Roy Rogers, but it wasn’t the caffeine and sugar lighting her up like downtown Hong Kong.  I admitted that at first I was nervous. What if she panicked, froze up, was humiliated? Then I saw her take her place at the mike, and she said, “Well…okay. Okay.” She took a deep breath and went on. “Every year my science teacher at Roland Park Public takes her sixth graders on a trip to Luray Caverns. I was really excited because I love field trips. On the bus. With my friends.” She smiled and plunged onward, her gestures and facial expressions charming the audience as much as her words.  By then, I was relaxed, waiting serenely for the punchline, when she would be standing on the curb crying. And laughing. And everyone would be laughing with her. Welcome to the family business, Jane, I thought. All over that room, my cells were dancing.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Marion Winik

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  1. Aww man, Marion, you must have gone to the Friday night Stoop! We were there Saturday night. I would have loved to have heard Jane’s story. I had a few I wanted to tell, but I am not brave enough to stand on that stage.

  2. There’s nothing that gets me more than parents’ love letters to their children, and vice versa. This piece manages to be both, and you’ve successfully got me sobbing in my office at 9:30 a.m. I LOVED this piece. So much. And way to go, Jane!

  3. dear jane, you kindly lent me your bed and bunny pillow for three nights in march of 2008. i wonder, did i pick up any of those cells?
    PS cool tattoo jeans
    your fan,
    leah emmerich

  4. More often than every two weeks? I love you insatiable fans but I’m gonna need some creative Viagra here.

  5. Beautiful…I especially love “Her cells drove off down the road.” I’m emailing this to my mother!

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