The following essay was first published by HipMama.com on March 13, 2009. I am rerunning it because I’m still reeling from turning the last page of Alison Bechdel’s new graphic novel Are You My Mother? The book is dense as hell, and I will likely devote a few dozen original posts to it, but I was most touched (pun intended!) by this particularly devastating panel:
When you read my 2009 essay, you’ll understand why I want Alison Bechdel to be my new big sister–or better yet, my new therapist.
The piece was healing to write, exciting to publish, and has caused rifts in my family that reverberate even three years later. I welcome your thoughts, especially if you’ve read Bechdel’s book.
by Shannon Drury
My most powerful childhood memory is very simple, like all the deepest recollections are: as my mother leaned against the sink of our butter-yellow Minneapolis kitchen, I barreled into her and squashed my face her soft belly. I could have been no older than five, for my head reached no higher than the motherly bulge that bumped out below the high waistband of her 1970s-era jeans. I luxuriated in the warmth that lay there as I wrapped my arms tightly around the back of her legs. I felt at home. I was safe.
Did she hold me in return? Did she ruffle my hair? Did she have any idea of the comfort I felt in that moment?
I tried to tell her about this feeling much later. I was twenty-eight, and I’d just given birth to my first child. Afterwards, I saw that my body was different. I told her that I had the pooch under my belly button that she had, too. I understood now that the soft place I had loved was the place was proof of her motherhood: we were connected by the physical proof that we’d carried children.
When I told her this, she squirmed. “I’m fat,” she moaned. “I’m disgusting. You’re making fun of me.”
But I remember hugging you there, I said, and how important you felt to me. I remember how soft you were. You felt good.
She looked uncomfortable. I knew then that my hair hadn’t been ruffled. She had a different interpretation of the moment we shared; while I remember the safety of a mother’s body, she felt embarrassment and shame, perhaps blaming me for calling attention to what she saw an imperfection. Soon it would not only be her motherly body that was imperfect: mine would be too.
My mother and I no longer speak. Sometime after that simple hug in the kitchen of our old house on Dupont Avenue, our relationship changed. It took becoming a mother myself to realize that the chasm between my mother and her emotions was too wide for me to bridge. Too often the only way to gain insight into her feelings was to endure one of her blistering, white-hot rages, but even those seemed out of her control, too much like a furious id unleashed from an unsuspecting ego. My mother’s long undiagnosed mental illness did to her what gamma radiation did to poor Bruce Banner in my dog-eared comic books. The latter at least figured out how to use it for the proverbial good.
As I mothered my children with my body, I remembered something else: or more accurately, its lack. The aforementioned memory is my only one of spontaneous touch. And I was the one who hugged her, not the other way around. Today I pet my daughter and son with abandon, kissing them, hugging them, holding their hands, touching the softness of their unblemished cheeks, losing my fingers in the tangles of their hair. I have no such corollary. I can’t recall so much as a goodnight kiss.
Thirty years since that hug, I wonder what happened to that soft place I knew. Yet her hugs and kisses with my children, her grandchildren, seemed genuine. What had happened? Was it me? Did I have years of her affection that were inexplicably forgotten?
This thought gives no comfort. Which option is worse: lacking affection entirely, or having it only to lose it? The latter implies a change in one or both parties that affected the outcome, which also implies that there is someone who can be blamed.
As my son grew older, he grew difficult. “There’s something wrong with him,” my mother said more than once. She began to withdraw from him, preferring the company of his much cuddlier younger sister.
Watching this became unendurable. I had to let her go.
Touch imprints powerfully upon the memory. I remember one particular embrace, early in my relationship with the man who would become my husband. I tucked my head into his right shoulder and felt as a child once more. The sense of calm security was profound. I never doubted that this person would be my family for the rest of my life.
In the hold’s immediate aftermath, I panicked. Was I losing my independent, feminist principles in the arms of a man whom I wanted to take care of me? Did I have some warped infantilization in my admittedly fragile psyche?
Much later, I understood. I was feeling what I had felt that day in the kitchen. I flashed back to the safety of a loved one’s body. Inside Matt’s arms I experienced the unconditional acceptance and love that I hadn’t known since I was five years old.
In the bathtub, my two-year-old daughter touched my breasts. “Your boo-boos,” she cooed. Yes, I said, they are mine. “I have boo-boos,” she continued, “but mine are little.” I nodded.
I had to fight the urge to slap her pudgy hand away. My conditioning, it seemed, was complete. Nervous schoolteachers taught that bodies are not for sharing; the chill running through my childhood home enforced the same message.
I love my daughter with every part of my body and soul, and I know I want her to have what I didn’t. I give her access to my body when she needs it. I nursed her until I was physically unable. I answer her questions when she asks them. I let her touch if she needs to.
After her hands learned all that they needed to, they went back to her plastic boat. She was satisfied. It lasted three seconds.
My mother asked in an e-mail message that I return all of the family photo albums that were stored in my attic. She said that it was only fair — before my son was born I had promised to reorganize them into fresh, acid-free books that would halt the degeneration of the nearly forty-year-old film. I said I would, and I didn’t. Now she wanted those memories back.
I peeled picture after picture from their sticky pages. I am playing on city park equipment, built of metal that scorched and wood that splintered, replaced long ago by fiberglass and plastic. In a delicate baptismal gown I am held by a series of elderly folk who determinedly clung to the Brylcreem and horn-rimmed glasses of their own lost generation. So many of the things that touched me once are gone forever.
Other hands, the thick-fingered North Dakota laborer hands she inherited from her father, have withdrawn for their own reasons. They wish to hold age-browned squares of paper instead of the hot, nail-bitten hands of a anxious little girl, and years later, her troubled little boy.
When I was done, I left the paper grocery bag of photo albums at my sister’s back doorstep. If there were any objections to the gaping white holes that skipped across every page, I never heard them.
In calmer moments, one can draw a clinical line from the sternness of the prairie farm people to the emotional reserve of their children. A trained professional and a stack of thoughtful books theorize that the illness coursing through her brain detached her from reason.
But reason isn’t in it, I seethe. Reason isn’t behind the cradling warmth that a child needs from her mother; that drive is instinctive. Parents embrace the children who need them. Parents don’t seek out scientific studies proving that untouched babies fail to synthesize the hormones needed for growth and metabolic functioning. Among the reams of paperwork passing into the hands of fumbling new parents at the check-out desks of hospitals are no flyers warning that untouched babies will die. Unvaccinated babies, yes, or babies lacking car seats. To tell a parent that a baby needs touch sounds as silly as telling that parent to breathe, to eat, or to live.
At a certain point in their development, children lose the smooth softness that invites the instantaneous snuggle or caress. Baby fat melts into angles at noses and elbows. Their rounded flesh roughens; their bodies smell sour, not sweet. Their appeal grows complicated as they age, the inverse of The Very Hungry Caterpillar story that I read to both of my kids when they were young. And as their shells harden, perhaps the grown-ups around them do, too.
The therapist squinted, then pursed her thin lips. “This must have been very hard for you,” was all she could say.
My mother was right, after all: there is something wrong with him.
For my son hurts me. My scalp tingles for hours from the memory of the pull of his hands on my hair. I get kicked, in my stomach, knees, and face. I feel a dark and frightening id of my own bubbling to my lips before Matt intervenes and sends everyone, grown-ups and children alike, to their rooms for time-out.
Ten minutes later, I pad upstairs to his room, where I find him wrapped like a burrito in a thick comforter, still crying. His damp, red-rimmed eyes are wild with fear. He doesn’t know where this comes from. I have an idea, and months later another set of logical, reason-based professionals will prove me right. For now, his mind is not the battleground; my body is. Two models of parenting, from my mother and from my species, are at war over what I must do.
I peel away the blanket. His body lies curled into a fetal coil, his hands tucked beneath his tear-streaked chin. I creak the springs of the mattress as I ease my weight in beside him, pulling the blanket back over us. This cocoon feels good. I put my face into the tangled hair that still smells of the strawberry shampoo we washed it in.
Here Matt will find us, wrapped up together, our arms and legs touching, at peace.
What will my son remember of this moment? Will he recall the feel of my imprint? Of my shape curling around his? Will I tell him that I needed the relief of our touch as much as he does? When he understands that our family’s Incredible Hulk-like curse has fallen upon him, will he come to resent my needs as much as his grandmother seems to? Will he tear himself from me, or be torn? Can I hold on tightly enough to stop that from happening? Do I even have the right to try?
In any event, I can be sure he will ask one day about the loose pictures stashed in the Converse All-Stars shoebox. He will ask me to identify the young, red-haired woman holding me at the baptismal font. I must answer honestly: she is my mother.
Mother. How might his memory react to the mention of that word?
He might feel her thick fingers enveloping his plump little hand as he edged towards the new plastic slides at McRae Park for the first time.
He might even recall, as I do, the moment that she let him go.