Flesh to Soul

My husband and I have developed a new ritual. After I brush my teeth, I sit on my walker in the bathroom, and he brushes my hair. I close my eyes as he strokes and pats and fluffs. I would happily sit there all day under his gentle ministrations. The ritual has come to feel almost sacred.

I am reminded of a ritual my mother and I shared when I visited her in the last years of her long life. She would lie on the couch with her legs resting on my lap and I would massage her feet. Well into her eighties by then, her feet, with their long toes and high arches, bore witness to an athletic past. I stroked her arches and tugged her toes while she closed her eyes, purring and moaning in ecstasy. I began bringing a stimulating peppermint foot cream, and its scent permeated the air between us. Everything about those sessions made us both so happy. It’s possible that I hadn’t ever done anything for my mother before that had brought her such unadulterated pleasure. Her over-investment in me had made for a complicated relationship over the years,

My mother is one of the few women I’ve known who loved her body. She trusted it. A strong and coordinated athlete, she swam, played tennis, danced. When we were kids she took us outside to dance naked in the rain. Once, on a bet, she leapt into the ocean from a cliff, wearing a yellow tulle evening gown she hated. Nineteen at the time, she had taken up the challenge at a party the night before. Someone snapped a photo of her mid-leap, arms and legs spread wide, a gleeful smile on her face.

When she was overseas in the Red Cross during WWII, she once found herself driving a jeep whose brakes went out as she was approaching a moving train. She hurtled herself out of the jeep which continued on without her and crashed into the train. She emerged unharmed because, she said, she was coordinated and knew how to fall.

My mother’s boldness was not only a physical thing. She was bold with people too. She often initiated conversations with strangers, sliding into talk with a wink or a laugh.

So why did I, the middle daughter of such a bold, fun-loving, body-embracing extrovert — a woman who all my friends adored, a woman who frequently claimed she’d never wanted to be anything but a mother — spend so much of my life erecting a wall between us, even as I put a great deal of energy into maintaining the illusion that we were close? She often told the story of me as a three-year-old, insisting on walking to nursery school down a quarter-mile dirt driveway alone. How independent I was, she said proudly. But I think I was afraid of her colonizing me, sensing, even then, her quietly simmering rage at the world.

She blamed her failure to pursue a profession on a gendered world, but also, more secretly, on herself. James Wood in his New Yorker article “Lessons From My Mother” writes: “Her children were her artifacts, through which she created the drama of her own restless ambition.” This captures my mother perfectly. “Make the most of your opportunities!” she would shout to my sisters and I as we left for school.

I wanted her to back off. As I grew out of childhood she became too invested in my choices and, because we were in a particular heyday of feminism when I came of age, she seemed to think making those choices was easy. It wasn’t easy — not for me. I toyed with earning a PhD in psychology, but if I did I worried that my participation in the arts would founder. I finally chose film school, knowing it was an art form in which I could make a living. I won a Student Academy Award for my thesis film and tried hard to parlay the acclaim into directing a feature, but it was hard to convince studio heads to invest in a girl. Though I worked in film for a number of years, I never directed a feature, and my mother’s acute disappointment did not escape me. It may have surpassed my own.

We had many battles during my twenties and thirties. She often told me I was controlling. How laughable, I thought — if anyone was controlling, it was she. She once said to me, after reading an article about the provinciality of American writers, “You have to change your work,” though she had no idea what I was writing. Another time she attended the opening of a play I’d written and afterwards rushed up to one of the lead actresses. “You’re the one who played me!” she crowed. From that point forth, I felt it wise to keep my creative endeavors out of her sightlines.

By the time I began massaging her feet I’d become somewhat less guarded. I was publishing and teaching, was married and had a child; I felt I had come into my own. Although I still didn’t talk about my creative work with her, I tried to remain as open as I could be about other things.

A few years before my mother died, she had a colpectomy, an operation that sews closed a woman’s vagina. The wear and tear of birthing children, and the pull of gravity over the years, often results in older women having prolapsed uteruses, or uteruses that are poised to “fall out,” as she explained to me. I’m not sure how literal this falling out is, but I understand that it’s a condition one might want to fix. So, when she opted to have her vagina sewn closed, I made myself available to see her through the operation, hoping our recurrent power struggle would be mitigated by the immediacy of her need.

It was a humid day in June when I drove her to Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was keen on having me meet her “young” doctor, a gregarious, middle-aged man with a polished bedside manner. He was open about discussing the surgery’s benefits and risks. She emphasized to him that she did not want general anesthesia — she was a strong woman, she argued, who took no medications and didn’t need to be “put under.” He agreed to do his best to honor her wishes.

Post-surgery, she was livid. They had put her under general anesthesia — because of a mild heart condition, the doctor later explained, just to be safe — and now she was in the ICU and would have to spend the night. Whatever pain she was in was secondary to her anger. He promised, she fumed.

The next day I took her home and stayed for a few days while she recovered. She seemed okay, but restless, and worried things had not gone as planned. Would I check out her stitches? she asked one afternoon. She thought something wasn’t right “down there.”

Her feet I knew and loved — but her vagina?

She lay on the bed and spread her legs, and I bent to examine the area in question. There was nothing observably inflamed, nothing that raised flags of alarm, and yet the whole situation was alarming. My mother and I had never known such staggering intimacy. I had never felt so needed by her — who was the mother and who was the child? I couldn’t remember why I’d been so intent on pushing her away. I gazed at the place from which I had once emerged. Above the V of her legs, her worried face watched me.

“Do you see anything?”

“It looks okay to me.”

She dismissed me then, suddenly embarrassed, and I went to the spare room where I lay on the bed, still feeling linked to her lying on her bed not far away. I thought of the primal ways our bodies had spoken to each other over the years: the back rubs she had given me when I was a child, the skinny dipping she taught me and my sisters to love, the way she wiped our noses in the winter with the same rag. She understood the physical love I gave back to her in massaging her feet. Wasn’t it a huge gift of trust — and love — for her to ask me to examine her vagina?

I think of the deep pleasure I get now from my husband brushing my hair, fluffing and patting it to make sure it looks right. And the satisfaction we both get from him holding my Raggedy-Ann body upright and both of us swaying, as if dancing. Body-to-body love. The love expressed in breastfeeding, in cuddling, in kissing, in making love. So much less complicated and more expressive than the love relayed in words. Body-love seems to penetrate soul-deep.

In the contemplation of all that body-love my mother and I gave each other, the rest fades.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.