The Memory of Touch: Souls Intertwined

By Suzanne Siteman Phillips
Issue 106 May/June 2001

baby asleep in mother's armsThe language of mother and child begins in the body. With the first twinge of morning sickness, the first graze of a washcloth over a tender breast, we begin to speak. When my daughter and I shared my body’s interior, when she grew plump and complete inside of me, I felt the quickened drum of my pulse and the labored draw of my breath. I was suddenly attuned to the rise and fall of my temperature and my mood. I felt sure that I could hear the surf of my blood build as the baby demanded more of me. How remarkable to find that my body knew what to do: appetite grew, organs shifted, hormones pumped through me, and in their wake I felt woozy and sacred.

Five and a half months into my pregnancy, I finally felt my daughter’s distant quaking and, soon after, legitimate pokes and prods that made my T-shirt bulge while I shopped for groceries. Eventually she spoke in grand tumbles and languorous stretches that left me momentarily sore and dazzled. Hoping to include my husband in our conversations, I grabbed his hands and lay them over the rising parts of me, but I could tell that the physical separation made what was orchestral to me just a faint, single note to him.

In my last trimester I spent long afternoons beached across my chenille sofa, stroking my hands over the taut hump of my stomach, speaking to my baby through the slow rhythm of my fingers, listening to her robust kicks and tiny hiccups. And when I practiced yoga, she quieted, tumbling along with me as I shifted postures. With my heat and breath, I imagined myself surrounding her in a hazy warmth that was her first concept of me, of Mother.

Sixteen months later, it is still our bodies that speak louder than words. Through the press of my arms, the weight and scent of my breast at her mouth, my brown eyes holding hers, she knows me best. And I swear that I would find her with my eyes closed from the spiced grass scent of her neck or a stroke along the high arches of her feet. When I nurse her, she folds her body into mine, one foot flung high against my breastbone as my hand traces the small, round bones of her spine. It is almost as if I am still pregnant with her–our physical fusion is once again that complete.

My body is my daughter’s place of refuge, and it could be said that hers is mine as well. Lying tangled together with her on the worn, beige carpet of her room, I am anything but earthbound. I am as calm and content as I have ever been–I am never in a hurry, never wish to be anywhere else. I invite her exploration, waiting for her to lay claim to me. In my big pink bathtub, it is my thighs she smacks to watch the water droplets fly. She leans in to investigate my nipples and taps the hardness of my teeth with her soft coral nails.

But even as I hold myself still for her, time elbows us forward. I am not altogether lost within my bliss. I know that sooner than I will likely be ready for, it will be a favorite stuffed animal that gets pressed tight to her chest and the pastel privacy of her room to which she retreats. She will have best friends and then boyfriends. I feel the impatient breath of my daughter’s future on my neck as I nurse her before bed, her fist clenching my thumb until she grows sleepy and gradually lets go of me.

And hardest of all, I think, is knowing that I am the only one of the two of us who will possess a memory of this first, intense attachment. To know that there will never be a day when I can turn to her and reminisce, “Remember how you laughed when I crouched under your highchair tray and chewed your toes? Remember how you grabbed my ears to pull me in for kisses?” So many shared memories are mine alone to keep. Will I know what to do with them, I wonder? Will I bore my daughter silly dragging them out at holidays when she’s living on her own and I do not get to see enough of her?

But perhaps there does exist a different kind of memory, one that is corporeal rather than conscious. A memory held in the blood and bones and breath–an early, emotional imprinting that marks us from within. And if I am here to witness my daughter’s own mother’s touch, maybe a familiar gesture will surface when she settles her baby over her shoulder; maybe an echo of one of my nonsense melodies will be heard when she soothes her child. Maybe my mother recalls herself in me this way.

Until then, I admit that I worry a little about what comes next for us. When inhibition tames her, when I can no longer rely on my body to give expression to all that she needs of me, will it be words that keep us close? Can a spoken language become the sanctuary that our bodies once were? The weight of my daughter, body unfurled, asleep in my arms, reminds me of where instinct has brought us and of how she simply assumes that I know the way. Please, I whisper out loud, please let me live up to this. And then I let her nudge me forward, beyond the body, toward whatever is next for us.

For more information about the spiritual aspects of being a mother, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “The One Life Eats Itself,” no. 93, and “Psychic Awareness in Pregnancy and Birth,” no. 23.

Suzanne Siteman Phillips is an essayist who lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, with her husband, Gordon, and daughter Carrie (now 2 1/2). Carrie is no longer nursing, but she is still eager to share the bathtub with her mom and remains an ardent cuddler, for which Suzanne is more than grateful. Suzanne also enjoys a regular yoga practice, cooking, travel, and dancing ’round the dining table with her daughter.