Mothers and Magic: Understanding “Mama Day”
There are many different ways to describe the mysticism that pervades Willow Springs in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. Most people would call it magic, but every character would describe it differently. Mama Day would call it seeing. Dr. Buzzard would name it voodoo. Cocoa would say its Mama Day’s touch. George would refer to it as nonsense. Most of the residents in Willow Springs would simply call it 18 & 23. Regardless of what it is labeled, it is undeniably present and powerful throughout the novel. This magic is only slightly more prevalent than the presence of strong mother figures. While very few biological mothers exist in Naylor’s novel, each character has a mother figure that plays a massive role in his or her upbringing. Furthermore, the mother figures in each character’s life affect how he or she perceives the mysterious phenomena that surround Willow Springs.
Sapphira Wade is the epicenter of everything in Naylor’s novel; the most important of which are her place as a universal mother figure as well as the source of all magic and mysticism. Sapphira is not only the beginning of Willow Springs but also predecessor for the Days. Due to the fact that she secured freedom and shelter for her children, she is revered as a god by the current inhabitants of Willow Springs. George directly comments on this fact when he says, “she was the great, great, grand, Mother – as if you were listing the attributes of a goddess” (218). Not only is she revered for its establishment, she is also still present on the island. Through nature, Sapphira touches the lives of her descendants. During the hurricane, people prayed “to be spared from what could only be the workings of Woman. And She has no name” (251). This is further evidence of her god-like status with the residents of Willow Springs and also shows how she uses nature to wield her power. After Mama Day’s pleas for George’s protection, “a breeze came out of nowhere … stayed at [his] back” (300). Obviously, this is another example of Sapphira’s natural motherly presence. Even though this specific instance did not end happily, Sapphira continually shows her power and mercy throughout the novel with these examples of magical interference. Most importantly, Sapphira seems to be the direct source of Mama Day’s powers. While looking for answers to Cocoa’s dilemma, the power is described as “[f]looding through like fine streams of hot, liquid sugar to fill the spaces” (283). As Mama Day is the oldest living descendant of Sapphira, it stands to reason that she would possess the same powers that belonged to Sapphira. The entire plot of the novel is rooted in Mama Day’s power and Sapphira’s mysterious, motherly presence.
Miranda plays the second most important mother figure in the novel. As a result of her mother’s death, Miranda was forced to grow up quickly to take care of her family which ultimately led to her ability to see Willow Springs’s magic. She admits that her family called her “Little Mama” and “there was no time to be young” as she was needed to do “the cooking, the cleaning, the mending, the gardening” for her family (88). When Miranda’s mother lost Peace, she lost her ability to be a mother to her other children. Since Miranda had no mother in her life, she was required to be the mother to everyone in her family. She was even considered to “have a gift”, which seems to stem from the original mother, Sapphira (262). This gift of mothering also came with the ability to see and control the supernatural aspects of life in Willow Springs. While Miranda believes in these supernatural happenings, she does not believe they are magic. She believes that “the only magic is that what she believes” it is (96). According to Mama Day, the mysticism that takes place in Willow Springs is not voodoo or magic, but simply seeing what is already in front of her. Through paying attention to nature and the animals, it is possible to know everything about the island. She can attribute this special affinity to the gift that Sapphira passed down to her while serving as the mother figure to her family. Instead of acknowledging her gift as magic, she simply states that “she could disguise a little dose of nothing but mother-wit with a lot of hocus-pocus” (97). By believing that her gift is magic, it’ll have magical effects on the recipient, not through any actual magic of her own creation. Rather than magic, Mama Day would claim she has a sight that allows her to utilize nature’s inherent power.
Cocoa was raised by her grandmother and Mama Day, which left her in a complex position to believe the powers of her hometown. Cocoa comments, “It seemed I could do no wrong with her, while with Mama Day I could do no right. I guess, in a funny kind of way, together they were the perfect mother” (58). Like most characters in the novel, Cocoa has no biological mother. But the mixture of Abigail’s kind mothering and Miranda’s stern guidance is the perfect combination for a substitute mother figure. While Cocoa is unwilling to acknowledge the mysterious events that happen in Willow Springs, she does know that it exists and Mama Day is its source. She experiences “one of those days Mama said there’d be…” when she realized that the “air is more than fresh, it makes your senses come alive” (102). Miranda had a similar sensation while experiencing nature in Willow Springs. This shows how Cocoa is stepping into Mama Day’s shoes. She is inheriting the sight from Mama Day that has been passed down since Sapphira. Mama Day admits to this when she acknowledges “it’s more than my blood flows in her and more hands that can lay claim to her than these” (294). This beautiful line demonstrates all that Mama Day feels for Cocoa. Since Cocoa is the only blood relative that Miranda has, besides Abigail, she is expected to carry on the legacy of the Days. Miranda also knows that the special tie she has with Willow Springs extends to her great-niece. Mama Day believes that “the rest will lay in the hands of the Baby Girl – once she learns how to listen” (307). Due to her mixed upbringing, Cocoa is unwilling to listen to her sight as Mama Day wishes she would. Her grandmother, Abigail, has an aversion to the other place and its power while Mama Day is the source of the power. While she does not openly oppose Miranda’s actions, she never directly acknowledges the power that her sister wields until it is necessary to save Cocoa. This creates a complex and difficult situation for Cocoa. She wants to please both of her mother figures but cannot help to realize the supernatural aspects of being a Day woman, as she is beginning to inherit the powers herself.
It is evident to any reader that Mrs. Jackson has had a huge impact not only on George’s childhood but also on his behavior later in life. Considering George grew up in an orphanage, structure and practicality were a huge portion of his life. Evidence of this surfaces in his adult life as his wife comments “A place for everything and everything in its place. I guess a lot of it came from growing up in an institution” (145). This obsessive nature illuminates the orphanage’s lasting impression on George. He is yet another character that lacks a biological mother; however, his mother figure, Mrs. Jackson, does her best to mold her charges into productive members of society. While order and rationale are important in a child’s life, Mrs. Jackson forced George’s mind into a box, which made him incapable in believing in 18 & 23. George even admits to the extreme practicality of Mrs. Jackson’s mothering approach when he confirms, “Mrs. Jackson never catered to the romantic side … But I found out most women just didn’t have [her] pragmatism” (104). This example demonstrates the intensity of Mrs. Jackson’s sober, no-nonsense attitude. Likewise, it reveals that George considers these favorable traits, which is inevitably the root to his inability to believe in the magic of Willow Springs. Obviously, Mrs. Jackson continued to play a huge role in how George perceived the world long after leaving her care. Ophelia attests to this claim when she observes, “[he’d] mention a woman named Mrs. Jackson sometimes. The world lost a lot when [she] died, [he] said” (126). George developed an undeniable attachment to the woman that fed and clothed him as a child. Although Mrs. Jackson was successful in raising a great man, she was not truly a mother to him. His first experience with someone treating him as family causes “a lump to form in [his] throat … no woman had ever called [him] her child” (176). This touching moment uncovers the fact that although Mrs. Jackson did her job correctly, George missed out on fundamental emotional connections as a child. With an upbringing such as this, it stands to reason that he would not have the capacity to comprehend the magical events occur on the island.
In essence, the extremely diverse mother figures of Naylor’s novel alter how each character senses the 18 & 23 feeling that pervades through Willow Springs, Miranda, and everything that Mama Day encompasses. The way each character was raised relates back to Sapphira and her power. With no mother in her life, Miranda was compelled to grow up so young that she developed a gift for mothering. This gift has also granted her the ability to channel the power of the Days. This gift is something that Mama Day hopes to pass down to her beloved great-niece, Cocoa, but only once she is ready to listen to what Willow Springs has to tell her. However, Cocoa was not only raised by Mama Day. Abigail, her grandmother, is wary of the other place’s magic. This complicated dynamic adds another layer to the mysterious situation that revolves around Willow Springs. The mysticism of this place touches every character in the novel, not just those who grew up on the island. Although George grew up in an institution far away from Willow Springs, he married a Day which ties him to the island as well as its mysterious traditions. Unfortunately, the concrete world in which he was raised blocked him from seeing the abstract occurrences that are present in Cocoa’s hometown. Each character is from a drastically different background with various experiences that involve distinctive mother-child dynamics. While mother figures are extremely important in any person’s life, Naylor utilizes these diverse situations in order to show the unique ways in which mothers can affect perceptions and outlooks.