A Work of Nonfiction by Cathleen Townsend
I believe there’s a genetic component to empathy. Certainly it can be learned or suppressed, but it seems there’s an inborn disposition as well. Especially when it comes to animals.
My mother and I are both overly empathetic, to the point that it can be crippling. My natural reaction is to retreat in pain, which is counterproductive. I have to pretend I’m in control, force myself to be of some use. It’s extremely difficult.
My poor mother had it worse. I’m not sure she ever recovered when my little brother shot the itsy-bitsy spider right in the middle of the rhyme.
My ex-husband, on the other hand, was from a long line of farmers. Sheer hard-headed pragmatism when it came to animals. His family was probably of more use than I was when it came to doctoring. It was certainly easier for them when it came to making hard decisions, especially if the animal was in any way a pest.
As a new mother, I didn’t want to hear that my daughter clearly favored my husband’s family. It made me feel like a broodmare, a mere carrier for other, more important genes. But as Rebecca grew, it was obvious that she didn’t favor me.
Not that she wasn’t a delight. But the clashes between one mindset and another took some mental adjustment.
When Rebecca was two, she saw both sets of grandmothers on a regular basis. My mother-in-law spent time with Rebecca gardening. My mother read her story books. It was quite a shock to Mom when Rebecca plucked a book from her hand, threw it on the floor, and started stomping the face of poor Sammy Snail. Her other grandmother had taught her that snails were for stepping on.
Possibly as a result of all the farming talk, when she was three Rebecca decided that she wanted to raise worms. That sounded easy enough, and harmless, too. I was overwhelmed with managing my baby son and my preschooler, but even I could find time and energy for that. I mean, really, what did it take? A pot in the backyard. We combed through and removed worms periodically to add them to the garden. Rebecca would stroke them gently with a fingertip before releasing them into the soft soil surrounding our passion vines, snapdragons, and marigolds. She’d make up little stories about them, even laboriously writing some down. They were weak on conflict, but what do worms have to be afraid of? Nobody in our family fished. We never saw robins in our southern California backyard.
They didn’t seem like much of a pet to me, since I gravitate to cats or dogs. But Rebecca was happy with them, and that was the main thing.
One day, I nursed my son and put him down for a nap. When I came out of the bedroom, Rebecca’s hands were dirty.
I braced myself. “What have you been doing, Becca?”
She smiled. “I played with my worms.”
I flicked a glance through the sliding glass windows into the backyard. The worm pot was still standing. As I washed her hands, I said, “Remember you have to be very careful with them. You’re a lot bigger than they are.”
Rebecca tossed her long blonde hair. “I know, Mom. All I did was hug them.”
Well, that sounded okay. Really, I’d gotten off easy. In the past, unsupervised play had resulted in broken knickknacks, artistic endeavors on my walls, and an entire bottle of shampoo dumped on the bathroom floor. It surpassed belief how long it took to clean that last mess. I think I mopped the bathroom floor at least twenty times before the suds gave up.
Still, I was cautious. “All right, honey, but you still need to be careful. You’re strong enough to hug your little worms in half.” I didn’t want her crying, consumed with guilt because she’d inadvertently killed one of her beloved worms.
Rebecca’s blue eyes met mine. “Oh, that’s already happened.”
I took a deep breath. What to do? I didn’t want her weeping, but I didn’t want her turning into some horrible worm apocalypse either.
This must have shown on my face because Rebecca took my hand and said, “Don’t worry, Mom–it’s okay. Both halves still wiggle.”