How Not to be A Bad Mother
Understanding the Reasoning Behind the Telling of My Grandmother's Motherhood-Related Ghost Legend Through Similar Versions from Around the

Cindy Beauchemin
#1999-106 December 7, 1999

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What does it mean to be a bad mother? Young women across varying cultures are often explicitly taught by their communities, and more specifically the older generations of women within their families, how to correctly perform tasks that are specifically oriented to particular ideas concerning how to be a good woman, whether it be how to treat a husband, how to cook, or how to keep house. However, when it comes to the issue of having and raising children, communities and families across the globe appear to have a rather uniform belief as to what is means to be a bad mother. Often, these two issues are taught by example; however, while the first is often explained with a hands-on approach, the second is often dealt with in a much different manner-- the telling of motherhood related ghost legends.

The specific details within motherhood-related ghost legends vary widely, depending upon the era, locality, religious beliefs, and families in which they are told. However, the basic structure of the legends concerning the death or murder of children are the same: a mother kills or allows her children to die, she kills herself, and she then haunts the community in search of her lost children. Throughout my research concerning these legends, I have come to the realization that there is normally only a particular motherhood-related ghost legend that is passed down through the generations of female family members. There are probably numerous motives behind this transmission; however, I believe its main function is not only to avoid confusion on the part of the listener, but to reinforce a sense of credibility on the part of the teller,that makes the legend sound believable and real. Thus, by conveying the legend or memorate in this manner, another important aspect of the motherhood-related legend surfaces: the importance of instilling a family's or community's moral values concerning child-rearing upon the listener, which Patricia Sawin elaborates upon in her article "Inscribing Morality on the Landscape: Deviant Mountain Women in Bessie Eldreth's Ghost Stories," as she states, "These localized ghost stories comment indirectly but pointedly on moral behavior and thus make the very place in which one lives a constant reminder of moral standards. (Considering some of the messages conveyed, it will also become clear why daughters-in-law and an unmarried female researcher should receive this indoctrination)" (79).

The first time I heard a murderous motherhood-related ghost legend was when I was thirteen, and visiting my grandmother in Bozeman, Montana. My mother had just told my grandmother that I had started my first menstrual cycle, and the legend was told within the confines of a discussion of sexuality. The form, and context, in which my grandmother chose to convey the legend is not exclusive to my family. Rather, utilizing relative information or occurrences to construct a framework around the legend appears to be a common method of transmission. Pamela Jones furthers this notion of the link between women's lives and the motherhood-related legends in her article "There Was a Woman": La Llorona in Oregon as she discusses and interprets the reasoning surrounding how she came across such legends while working with immigrant Hispanic women at a WIC center : "WIC discussion topics are intimate: ... Because the WIC interview deals with basic life issues, it is not a long leap to the discussion of legends; the same anxieties underlie both" (197).

Upon doing research for this project, I asked my grandmother to repeat the motherhood-related ghost legend that I had heard as a child. However, before she began, she stated, "I'm glad you asked because I know that getting married is something that is probably in your near future, and even though your not thinking about kids, I think you should hear this anyway." Thus, motherhood ghost legends not only serve the purpose of expressing moral issues related to the raising of children, but these legends seem to be told at particular transitional times in a woman's life.

The following is the motherhood-related ghost legend that my grandmother told to me over the phone, upon my request for this paper. However, what is interesting is that this version is almost identical to the one that was told to me a little over eight years ago, thus proving how important accuracy and consistency are when telling these forms of legends. In an attempt to replicate the legend more accurately in written form, I decided to utilize the orthographic conventions that can be found with Ellis'article, "The Fast-Food Ghost: A Study in The Supernatural's Capacity to Survive Secularization."

Key to orthographic conventions:
( ) = softly spoken
>< = higher pitch and tone <> = lower pitch and tone
- = slight pause *conversational*

Grandmother: (Well) - when I was a little girl, we used to live in that big house on Broad Street near the fish hatchery -- >remember<, [pause] the one that grandpa and I showed you and your brother when you came up to visit us in Bozeman two years ago?

Cindy: >Yeah<, I remember. The one with the wrap-around deck, right?

Grandmother: <Uh huh> [pause] Well, your great grandpa used to know a bunch of people that worked at the fish hatchery that was right outside of town, and >my< mother used to have all the women in the family over for lunch - once most of us kids were going to school. [pause] Ya see, there were nine of us, (ya know), and it was kinda hard to have people over and have a good time when we were all there [pause] too much chasin around.

Cindy: I can imagine.

Grandmother: (Well), all the older women folk would come over and sit around and talk about all the happenings over at the hatchery. [pause] Ya see, it was kinda a new thing then, and people were still pretty impressed with the whole contraption. [pause] (Anyway), most of the time they would talk about how weird it was going to be, not gettin fish from the streams anymore. [pause] I suppose they thought it might taste different or something. [pause] But sometimes they would talk about Martha Hollings - the lady that drowned her two little babies in the fishery runs one night.

Cindy: The lady you told me about when I was little? [pause]

Grandmother: Yeah [pause] (Well) this woman was just a good for nothing around town, ya know. She had two little ones that she would let wander around in the yard while she chatted it up with the hatchery workers. [pause] My mother told me that she used to get all dolled up, and sit out front of her place down near the hatchery, and just wait for `em to come by. Ya see, [pause] her husband used to drive trucks up to Kalispel and Butte during the week, so she could pretty much do what she pleased.

Cindy: (Uh huh)

Grandmother: (Well) >supposedly<, Martha was tired of havin the kids in the way while she was lookin for a new husband - Ya see, she figured it would be easier to skip out of town with a man if she didn't have em under foot (not like she took care of them much in the first place).

Cindy: (Uh huh)

Grandmother: (So), one night--(I think my mother said it was in the early spring) - Martha took the little ones down to the hatchery runs, and drown them both [pause] leavin them in the run, figuring the fish would eat em away <or something>. [pause] (Supposedly) she just held em under the water, one at a time until they stopped movin. (Well), in the morning she supposedly got all dolled up again, and sat on her front porch waitin for the hatchery men to come by >like nothing ever happened<. [pause] (Well), they came alright, - but they came carryin her two dead babies with em.

Cindy: >Really?<

Grandmother: Yeah, [pause] and Martha just went off the handle. [pause] She started cryin, and throwin her arms in the air - I suppose she never expected something like that to happen, and what she did just hit her all at once, and she ran in the house. [pause] (Supposedly), the men eventually left, and sent the sheriff over to talk to her. [pause] But when he got there, he found Martha on the floor of the kitchen, with a knife in her chest. [pause] (Supposedly) her husband was due back the next day, and she realized that she couldn't explain away what happened.

Cindy: >Clearly<

Grandmother: But what is funny is after all the rigmarole of the whole thing - people down at the hatchery used to hear what sounded like a woman wailing, or crying. [pause] My mother told me that it was Martha, lookin for her little ones, hopin she could find em, and start all over. [pause] I remember hearin it myself, when I was about your age - and it sure scared me!

Cindy: >Oh my gosh<

Grandmother: (Yeah) [pause] (Well), I >surely< don't understand how she chose a man over em - but she did [pause] and I guess she's payin for it.

The notion of the linking a woman's promiscuous actions to the neglect and the eventual death of her children is not exclusive to my grandmother's story. In fact, it tends to be quite a popular aspect of this legend throughout many cultures. However, this form of linkage is especially noticeable in motherhood-related ghost legends from Hispanic-based cultures. For example, in Soledad Perez's article "The Weeping Woman," she relates a story where children die because of their mother's male-related issues: "The children were always hungry and cold because their mother was too busy going to parties and dances to take care of them. Finally one of the children dies and later the other died too" (128). The possible reasoning behind this could be the expression of the effects of immoral behavior; however, another possibility specific to both these, as well as my grandmother's legend, could be religion and its doctrines that discuss bad parenting.

However, regardless of the form of religion, whether it is Buddhism, Protestantism, or Agnosticism, there tends to be a strong emphasis on what is morally right and wrong. Thus, when it comes to motherhood-related legends that are being told to young women, it seems appropriate that religious-based values concerning promiscuity might find their way in. For example, Catholicism appears to be the primary religion within Hispanic cultures, as well as the religious foundation that my grandmother grew up with. Thus, this not only explains my grandmother's emphasis and subsequent commentary upon the actions of the woman in her story but also implies that her own beliefs can be explained by understanding the link between religious belief and story-telling.

Thus, the motherhood-related ghost legends that are produced from these communities and families tend to not only utilize a form of reprimand for the supposedly illicit behavior but also carry with them the notion of a penance for wrong conduct. For example, at the end of Perez's legend, the teller states, "Her soul is doing penance for her sins" (128). Furthermore, my grandmother, using rather indirect language, also makes the Catholic-based religious connection, as she states, "[A]nd I guess she's payin for it". Thus, by the teller's expression of their view concerning the behavior of the woman, not only are they implicitly describing to the listener that promiscuity is wrong, but that doing this as a mother is selfish and can lead to the loss of children.

Also, I have always been curious as to why the woman, Martha, in my grandmother's legend, decided to murder her children in the hatchery runs. I knew that there must have been some sort of reasoning behind the use of water; however, I wasn't sure why until I discovered that many other legends utilize water as an aid in the death of children. For example, in Jan Harold Brunvard's book The Baby Train - And Other Lusty Urban Legends, he mentions, "A version I heard in New Zealand earlier the same year said the event [the neglect of children] occurred during the First World War, and the woman did not trip and die, but returned upstairs to find the two youngsters drowned in the tub" (70). Thus, a broad explanation, which is alluded to in the above statement, can be utilized to encompass almost every instance of water in motherhood-related ghost legends: the notion that water tends to have a strong association with the domestic, whether it be for cooking, bathing, or washing. Thus, it would seem highly probable that water is used in these stories because it is something that women can relate to because they intimately understand its power within everyday life. Taking advantage of the knowledge can lead to a loss of children and the woman's capacity to be a mother.

However, another reasoning behind the utilization of water within these stories can be explored in religious terms, as well. For example, in many religions, water often has a form of supernatural power, whether it is to heal, exonerate, or mores. A twist on the helpful supernatural aspects of water, though, can be seen in motherhood-related ghost legends which often view water as evil or harmful. For example, an informant in Pamela Jones' article "There Was A Woman: La Llorona in Oregon," alludes to the religious-based ill-effects of water within a legend that is loosely related to the La Llorona cycle: "There was a girl that was told by her mother not to take a bath on Good Friday in Lent. The girl ignored her mother and took a bath anyway. A few days later the girl died" (201).

The final and most prevalent aspect that links varying versions of motherhood-related ghost legends together is the fact that almost all of the mothers die and come back in ghost form to search for their children. As a child, I had assumed that this aspect of my grandmother's ghost legend was unique to her tale, and the connotations that came with it were structured just for me. Yet, through my research, I found that not only is this aspect prevalent throughout similar tales but that the connotations that arise from it--a renewed maternal feeling on the part of the mother after her death--seems to be a consistent message throughout almost all of the versions. For example, George Carey, in his book Maryland Folklore, relates the motherhood-related ghost story of a Venton woman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: "When my aunt died, about a month after she died, her little daughter, Hilda, was out playing in the old woods here ... When Hilda came, she was so tickled she didn't know what to do and she said, 'Grandma, I seen Mom out there and she said when she goes back she's going to take me with her'" (40). Also, Bess Lomax Hawes in her article La Llorona in Juvenile Hall interviewed numerous young girls who tell similar stories where murderous ghostly mothers go searching for their dead children. For example, a young inmate named Debbie states, "She [La Llorona] had two kids who she threw in the L.A. River and killed. She would never have peace, so she killed herself. She looks for her kids in hospitals, Juvenile Hall, and any place there are pregnant girls" (165).

Thus, by recognizing, and studying the numerous versions of murderous motherhood-related ghost legends, I have come to better understand the one that has been passed down through my family. I no longer view my grandmother's legend as just a story about a woman who doesn't know how to take care of children, but as a reminder of how not to act as a mother and what can happen to me if I do. Furthermore, I now realize how widespread certain aspects within my grandmother's tale are and the reasoning behind why she, as well as the many other women tellers, decide to incorporate them into their versions. Thus, because of the commonality between all the versions of motherhood-related ghost legends, they can be viewed and understood for what they really are-- a global, woman's teaching tool that helps younger generations of women understand how to be, and not be, good mothers.


Works Cited

Brunvard, Jan Harold. 1993. "Horrors." The Baby Train: And Other Lusty Urban Legends." W. W. Norton & Company: New York: 70-71.
Carey, George G. 1989. "Legends." Maryland Folklore. Tidewater Publishers: Centreville, Maryland: 39-42.
Hawes, Bess Lomax. "La Llorona in Juvenile Hall." Western Folklore Vol. 27: 153-170.
Howard, Helen. Personal interview. October 24, 1999.
Jones, Pamela. 1988. "There Was a Woman': La Llorona in Oregon." Western Folklore. Vol 47(3): 195-211.
Perez, Soledad. 1998. "The Weeping Woman." The Best of Texas Folk and Folklore. Vol. 26: Eds. Mody C. Boatright, Wilson M. Hudson and Allen Maxwell. 127-130.
Sawin, Patricia E. 1995. "Incribing Morality on the Landscape: Deviant Mountain Women in Bessie Eldreth's Ghost Stories." North Carolina Folklore Journal. Vol. 42(2): 75-90.

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