Friday, June 13, 2008

Mother Love

Have you ever seen baby squirrels? No, I hadn't either, until this moment. I'm sitting here watching them now, gray mercury flowing up and down the branches of a grand old maple. They are playing, in the cool crepuscular air after a day of hammering heat. In the background is the most varied range of eerie sounds ever to come from the same animal, a coyote somewhere over there in this valley between two ridges. He is invisible in the tall grass, but announcing his presence with yipping and yelping and howling and, yes, even barking.

Have you ever had someone who ought to know you, and certainly ought to care for you, say something so stunningly brutal for a moment you don't know where you are? Like, say, propose that to make your life better, you ought to set your child out on a streetcorner with valise in hand, then drive away? --This being someone who, knowing you, thus knows your child is as necessary to life as is air?

No, I hadn't either, not till this week, when two members of my family did so. Well, they didn't say I should do this with my child. But that is tantamount to what they meant, when they told me that if I couldn't find a rental that accepted pets, I should think about getting rid of Nelly.

These are people who, I think and trust, love me. They are people who have witnessed me over the course of thirteen years make commitments to my dogs that are as deep as one can make. (I suspect I would never, like one truly maladjusted person I know, claim that one "shouldn't" pet a dog more than once per day--based on the bizarrest rationale a strange mind has ever come up with--and so he won't touch his dog more than that. He just dropped off said beast at his former girlfriend's, with one meal's worth of food, and then announced he was going to leave him there, maybe forever, because she "needs" a dog--though he knows she lacks the resources to care for one. Sheesh!)

These are people who know I take that commitment seriously, because it implies a contract: my dog is a dependent, in every way, and I agreed to provide for all of her needs. One of which is to never give her away, something that hurts dogs as much as it would hurt anyone. Anyway, I'd sooner give away my heart. The suggestion, then, could not have been anything other than a slash with a razor. And why? Why seek to hurt the ones you love most?

Actually, though, one comes to expect such things from one's mother. I don't know why, but the mother-child relationship can grow from needful worship to blinding meanness in only a decade or two. My mother has been proposing for years that I get rid of my dog so I can "enjoy some freedom." When she knows I already have the greatest freedom, the freedom of joy, from my relationship with this powerful Other.

I have a pen pal in Attica, a very interesting man. He writes me at length about the books he's reading, and the fine meals he cooked in his previous life. He has very refined taste. He would never tell me what he was in for. But someone on the outside who also knew him, did: He murdered his mother. If I ever got the ear of the powers that be, I'd tell them I could guarantee this man is perfectly safe to let out, will never kill again. How do I know? There's only one Mom, and he already took care of her.

Then, I get it twice in the same week, the second time by my sister. I was dumbfounded, smarting from this overt hostility. But my wise aunt snorted when she heard about this advice-cum-attack: "Ha!" she said. "You know your sister would never in a million years give up her dog."

Why are we so prone to mental illness? As my friend Sally says, "It is little studied just how prevalent it is." In all of us. I seem to know fewer and fewer people of whom I would say, Well, they're basically healthy. Nope. I'm talking the twenty-foot well, over which darkness you lean and wonder if there's an inch of water down there, or maybe it's right here and you'll touch it if you reach out. Or completely empty. Hard to tell.

I do not let myself off the hook. Motivations are a fascinating and difficult area of study, especially when applied to the self. And 1000-piece puzzles are very hard, but rewarding, to put together.

The squirrels--so "C-U-T-E," as my son would say--have now gone back to the nest, where I trust their mother is caring for them very well. I hope she informs them about the intentions of the black rat snake who likes to twine himself through the branches until he looks like one, waiting, silent. The snake loves squirrels, too. Maybe in much the same way a mother does. Food for thought.


Liz S-P said...

Dear Melissa,
I know what you mean about the contract between a person and an animal that they adopt into their family. We had an elderly cat who required expensive treatment for a thyroid disease and even though we could have chosen at that point to end her life, or allow it to end slowly and miserably, we instead decided that when we brought her into our lives we made a commitment to do everything we could for her. Although she only lived 1 additional year, I'm glad we had it.
Right now we have a new puppy (thanks to running across your blog we're clicker training her). Although she's at that puppy-biting stage (ouch!), I know we're committed to her for her life span and that's part of the responsibility we take on when we made her a part of our family-- because she is now family.
I sympathize too with your response to your mother's suggestions. Why do mothers seem like they're trying to act in our best interests and yet, at times, get it so completely wrong? I'm hoping not to be that way when my children get older but perhaps that's the destiny of all parents- though I hope not.
If you find yourself near Akron in the future, track me down in Kent.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

If only everyone understood the commitment thing like this, Liz! In fact, animals' (voiceless) complete dependence on us implies that even *greater* care must be paid to learning what their individual needs are. Most people haven't a clue; they either think a dog is a piece of furniture, or a squat, furred human--both of which lead to negligence or worse.

Congrats on the puppy. (I have asked friends to shoot me first if I ever say I'm going to get another one. But, of course, I will.) Clicker training with them is so fun! It will actually enlarge their growing brains. Have you ever seen "Click for Joy"? That's a really good book for starters. But there's a whole bunch of them out there. And look for Karen Pryor's Clicker Training website,, with lots of good stuff to read (though beware she's a consummate capitalist, too).

Ah, mothers. When we become one, we have to work hard to try not to become one. If you know what I mean (and you obviously do).

tina in cleveland said...

Hi Melissa,
It is interesting to see your very refined understanding of the dependence of animals and the nature of life-long commitment--next to your difficulty with your mother. Excuse me for being Dr. Freud, but as you have a son who I assume is not yet a teenager, spare your future self (coming to your town soon) by examining and slowing down with your condemnatory feelings about your mother. You may not become her--but you will ever be your child's mother. And WHATEVER you do will loom large for him. It will not all be positive, at least not until he's 50 or so. How could it be? You'll have to live with whatever grudges he bears, however slight. Cultivate forgiveness toward your mother, no matter what, for your son's sake, and your own. Just a thought.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

You know, I know. I do. I think, Tina, that forgiveness is actually the golden key that unlocks everything. Happiness, maturity . . . it's maybe the deepest thing there is, and both hard and exquisitely easy. Trust me, I've been giving it more thought over the past 9 months than I ever did in the previous 50 years. So let me just say that at least my rebound time is growing shorter--that's progress, isn't it? Where before I might have nursed that twinge of pain for a good while longer, it was only 24 hours this time. Then I was on the phone to Mom. I said I was sorry. And we ended the call with the three words that carry the meaning of it all.

tina in cleveland said...

Oh, good. I hate to be insufferably judgmental, or judgmental at all,so thanks for taking remarks in stride. Forgiveness is simple except when it'not, and personally I am unable to forgive certain men from my past--at least so far. So I try to even the score by forgiving anyone else I can!