Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

Mother love

I remember with the greatest love and amusement the years my mother spent struggling to keep track of what foods her three daughters liked.
One would eat hot dogs, but only with catsup, while it was mustard or nothing for another. Plain pasta for one, sauced for the other two. One of us liked only the yolks of eggs, another only the whites: buttered corn, plain corn. Until six, I wouldn’t touch cheese: after that, only American cheese, which in our house came to be known as Joni cheese.
Liver was the only constant – all three of us always hated it — but few other foods commanded our unified appreciation or aversion, and my mother was the keeper of all our preferences.
Not only did each of us have different likes and dislikes, they changed all the time. And it wasn’t simply that each kid added to her list of approved foods; we also stopped liking foods we’d previously liked for no apparent reason. Which made my mother, like mothers everywhere, crazy.
“Aren’t you going to have some?” she asked one night when I hadn’t touched the asparagus.
“No, Mom.”
“But you like asparagus,” she said eagerly.
“No, Mom, I hate it,” I said with an impatience that implied that there was something terribly wrong with her ability to remember the simplest things.
But my mother wasn’t misremembering, I’d just changed my mind about what I liked. Why? I don’t know, lots of unconscious reasons, I suppose, related to asserting independence, peer pressure, and coolness — issues my mother probably understood. She witnessed it all and held the knowledge of everything I liked, and didn’t like, all I denied, all I fought, all I saw and didn’t see, all the ways I changed and grew.
And she never stopped being happy to feed me and cook the foods I liked.
My father loved to feed us, too, but it wasn’t second nature to him to inventory our changing tastes the way it was with my mother.
I’ve come to think of the love of feeding others as mother love, because I see its purest form in mothers. Under ideal conditions, life creates life through mothers in love and, as part of the package, nature gives them a love of feeding their children. It’s the biological imperative hard-wired to food. After the birth itself (the coming into form from the formless), it’s love’s first action: Life has to be fed.
Regardless of how mothers deal with their children’s demands or how distorted life may be for some, mothers are genetically disposed to get pleasure from feeding their young.
Which is why my sister’s friend, Sandra, makes two types of fish when she makes fish for dinner, why she serves one daughter white meat boneless chicken, another soy chicken products, and only dark meat on the bone to her son.
“It can be a little annoying, but I’m so happy that everyone’s eating a good meal,” she said.
It’s been a while since my mother has been gone from this place, but I get and give the mother love when I eat with people I love. Sometimes, when my husband’s eating a dish I made, something happens to me physically. It’s rare and only happens when he’s very hungry and unselfconsciously digging in — often after midnight when he’s just gotten home from a trip or a long work night. As I sit with him, my arms start to really tickle and I become aware of how much I love him.
Don’t ask: I don’t know what this is, but I have to wiggle around and rub my arms briskly to get the tickling to stop. I mean, I guess it’s clear: I’m tickled to see him eat.
My mother never stopped loving to see us eat, either, even as adults. And when we grew up and went away, she and my father continued their mutual love of food and fed each other.
I have a memory of my mother I’ll never forget. It was a simple thing, a small moment.
She was visiting me on the Cape and my father was at home in Connecticut. It was summer, a beautiful, warm evening in Woods Hole, and she was lying on my bed on the phone with my father. At this point in their relationship, things weren’t so good. It was a quiet conversation, a checking in. I was in the kitchen, doing something, when I heard her ask him what he ate. Then, after some quiet, she said:
“Some good haddock from that fish market in Falmouth, baked potatoes, and a salad.”
Then, after some more silence, she spoke again.
“Yup, she ate with me.”
Follow Joan Wilder on Twitter.