Since the girls and I were on our own last weekend, we headed an hour northeast to spend a couple of days at my sister's house. My girls call it the CatCowDog Farm, because it is a cute old farmhouse with a lot of cats living on the front porch, surrounded by pastures of cows, and when we come we bring the dog. My other sister lives a few miles down the road and came with her eleven year old daughter, who my girls absolutely adore. She has infinite sweetness and patience with her little cousins as they play hours of hide-and-seek and "babies" and "school."
This particular weekend my oldest niece, who is pregnant with her first child, came to spend the evening on the farm with her husband. She was radiant and sporting quite a belly. It was funny to see this beautiful 30 year old woman who in my mind's eye is still a little girl, like my girls. As she pulled up her shirt to show off her big belly, my memory flashed back to the two-year-old who used to walk around with her shirt pulled up to show a chubby baby belly. She would call it wearing her "doot."
My parents were at the farm that day, too. My dad puttered around, a restless younger soul trapped in his aging body. My mother rested on the couch, inserting the occasional comment into the conversations going on around her. As my niece showed off her belly and talked about feeling better after months of "morning sickness," my mother pipped in with a warning not to gain too much weight. "My pregnancies were my undoing. I never got my figure back."
I know she meant well. My level-headed niece knew she meant well, as my mother went on to admonish her not to gain another ounce. My nephew-in-law immediately came to his wife's defense, but my wise niece just smiled and let her grandmother's thinly veiled criticism roll off her pregnant belly.
I was raised by a mother who expected her six children to take better care of her than she did of them. My childhood tasted of salty potato chips, hand-cranked ice cream, the sweetness of candy from the corner store and resentment. As I grew up, my resentment was hardened by hormones and heartbreak until it became a pit of anger in my stomach.
I now see my mother through the eyes of my own motherhood. It's not an easy job. For someone who is mentally ill, mothering is nearly impossible. There was a time when hearing my mother pick on her granddaughter would have had me seeing red. But this year spent back in the bosom of my family after a long absence has mellowed me. Motherhood has mellowed me, too.
As my anger has dissipated this year, I've wondered what I should call the feelings I have for my mother now. Is it love? But as the sun slanted across the warm kitchen at the CatCowDog Farm, as my niece and I smiled knowingly at each other above my mother's oblivious head, I realized something. Perhaps the absence of my anger, my companionable silence instead of my scorn, perhaps that is love.