The Remedy of Touch
I had just gotten up and was still somewhat drowsy as I sat down. But when I flushed the toilet, it exploded under me. Water and feces sprayed out, all over my small condo bathroom.
Stunned, overwhelmed, I threw all the towels and rugs onto the mess and began picking up whatever I could reach on the floor and basin with an endless strip of paper towels. Sobbing, I called several friends in succession, begging for clues about how to deal with the deluge, but no one had the least idea. My son Colin grabbed the next ferry from Port Orchard and came to get me. By the time he arrived, I had showered as best I could, thrown a few items into a bag, and given my house keys to my neighbor across the hall.
The property management company sounded angry on the phone. They warned me that explosions like “mine” invariably cost thousands. Before I could return, the room would need to be cleaned, thoroughly sterilized, and made hygienic. But the curious thing is that the plumbing pipes had just been cleaned, their annual cleaning, only the day before. The condominium board met that afternoon and agreed that none of this was in any way my fault. I was relieved to learn that they would take care of the toxic mess.
When I returned a week later, little heat lamps were on, my apartment was toasty, and the bathroom was sparkling. Some of the contaminated towels and other throwaways had been encased in plastic bags; I carried them and the knee-high UGGs I had been wearing during the deluge down to the garbage. After hanging the elegant new towels my daughter-in-law had bought me on the bathroom rods, I relaxed in my beloved and well-worn easy chair.
That’s when I realized that something was amiss. I didn’t feel depressed; I felt like some vital part of me was missing. The Native American description of soul loss, as I had read of it half a century ago as a graduate student in anthropology, seemed close to what I was feeling. Not that I usually feel my soul, if I have a souI. According to ancient beliefs and traditions, what I required was a shaman, someone powerful enough to intercede on my behalf and persuade the spirit world to restore my missing part.
It was Spring in Seattle and Spring is a time of blossoming trees and flowers. The day was sunny; but I was lacking some of the positivity that usually carries me through my days. I have read about, but I can’t say I have ever met a living shaman. The closest I have ever come to one is my mother. More than anyone or anything else I can think of, my mother, Mimi, was responsible for my inheritance of lifelong joy. Even in memory, she seemed a powerful enough force for the desirable and good to fight off a legion of monsters.
Mimi was a Roaring Twenties flapper; she would sing and dance, make faces, snap a dish towel or whatever was handy, laugh. When I was still a toddler in a highchair, I giggled and clapped. She would read me poetry and stories from books like The Child’s Garden of Verses and enjoy them as much as I did. In her arms I became an early arbiter and adorer of music, books, and print. She was a young and very physical person who loved to move and ran from one room to another. She would hold me close while she dusted, sang, and did an occasional triumphant skip and spin.
I was her first child; with me, she had the time and the desire to cosset and share. When my two sisters, Joan and Nancy, came along, only a year apart, mother was too busy to dance, read, or play. Following my mother’s excellent example, I became my sister’s second mother, advisor, and protector. I read to them as soon as I learned to read and bought them books when I was old enough to make and save my baby-sitting money. I promised them that I would never let our short-tempered father hurt them. We became a threesome, a united and supportive threesome. All my life my sisters were my bulwark against large and small disasters. But now our sisterhood is gone--Joan died first, and then, last year, Nancy and Anne (a later sister addition). And earlier, of course, our mother, the inimitable Mimi/Myrtle Shaman.
How to recapture my missing and more positive self? Owing to a dearth of American shamans, I was on my own. I had read that a shaman often used touch and community participation as part of his/her cure. Getting a community together seemed unlikely, but touch had possibilities. These past several years of avoiding human contact to avoid the contagion of Covid have been generally chilling to social life in general. The entire world has avoided hugs, kisses, and every direct contact. Even our smiling and empathetic expressions have been hidden behind face masks.
I found that human touch did help. I felt somewhat better when I pressed my fingers to my forehead. I began sleeping with my bare hands against my face. I scheduled a full body massage for every other week. I began hugging my friends and family.
As a book-obsessed person who cherished ideas, I had never learned much about the pleasure of touch from my readings. I never placed much value on human warmth except when passionately obsessed with my lover, Stevo. But those five romantic years that I lived for his voice, his smell, the incessant beat of his heart were decades, many decades, ago. And it has been even longer since my marriage and my husband’s abiding presence. After we divorced, I didn’t miss his intemperate drinking, but I did miss the solace of his body in my bed.
I remember one long-ago holiday when Mother sat in the corner of her living room sofa and couldn’t manage to talk. Her tears were hidden, but I could tell that she was suffering. By then I had four siblings and was doing my best to prepare for the next day’s Christmas morning; I decorated the tree, wrapped the presents, and filled all the stockings. At midnight, while serving hot tea to my heartbroken mother, whose husband was seeing another woman, I tried hard to think of what I might say that would be a comfort. But I was only fifteen years old and didn’t have the words or expertise.
I now realize that all I had to do was put my arm around her. That would have made her feel better. Human contact was called for. But my family wasn’t Italian and no one in my family was demonstrative. I never saw my father kiss my mother. I don’t remember my mother ever kissing my grandmother. Did I expect a bit of human feeling would challenge my mother’s dignity or show her disrespect?
I can say that my entire life I have expected my brain, not the inconclusiveness of bodily contact, to solve my problems. As a child, my sisters and I were all sent to bed at eight. We would secret a book to read, a flashlight, and several slices of Wonder Bread under the covers to snack on. During my early college years, I spent many hours studying the work of philosophers, looking for existential answers, debating them with Cissy, a similarly motivated sorority sister. During my marriage, to make my important decisions, I would list the pros and cons on a sheet of paper and ponder the results. I read book after book to find the authors I could admire and trust. Eventually I became a writer myself. Words and ideas were my metier, not touch.
For too many Americans, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been a non-touch time. Back in the nineteen-fifties I remember reading a noted child psychologist’s advice that each child should have a bed of their own. I don’t remember the reason, but I do remember I wasn’t entirely convinced. Nowadays, my great granddaughter Sofia, who is ten and lives in Harlem, sleeps with her actor parents and one or two cats in a king-size bed. My granddaughter Shanley, now in her twenties, has grown into one of the most charming people I have ever met and I attribute it, in part, to the security of sleeping, as a child, with her parents. For all I know, it may still be taboo to sleep with your children, but parents apparently no longer care.
As a child, I couldn’t imagine sleeping with my parents or any kind of tactile intimacy with my father who, when young, was a nervous wreck. Becoming a father during the Great Depression, he was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to pay the bills for his growing family. He insisted that each of us had be perfect, but he had no idea of what that might be. Bewildered, he would ask, “What’s wrong with you?” a question with no answer. By the time he was in his forties, he had gained self-confidence, a more mature viewpoint, accepted his children as normal adults, become the lawyer for a bank, and transformed into our much beloved and loving Dad.
Although he threatened, he seldom actually hit us. Whenever he lost his temper, however, we all began crying, even my mother, whose own father had been the gentlest of men. I refused to see my own angry response as similarly explosive, and often attacked him in terror. When his best friend Claude was present, he would put his arm around me to calm me and tell my father, “Now, John. Relax.” I well remember the warm supportive feeling of that arm, and I wish, as a parent, I had sought to emulate that touch. At some point in my childhood, I don’t remember when, I decided I wanted to be like kind and understanding Claude, not my confused father, and I stopped meeting fear with fear.
Not much for touching, my mother was also freaked out by any emotional display. Was that chiefly the effect of her own mother’s proper English background? After my two sisters and I got scarlet fever, Mimi insisted we move from the hotel into a drafty house in the inner city not far from where my father worked and on one of the busiest Spokane streets. My Aunt Fran, who raised thoroughbred collies, gave me a funny looking mutt whom I named Princess, probably because I was eleven, a princess-prone age. The day that Princess escaped into the traffic, I screamed, jumped, shouted, and cried from the parking strip until she made it safely home.
My loss of control obviously dismayed my mother. She didn’t even approve when her daughters sobbed a bit during the sad parts of our stories. The next week when I was away at Camp Fire Girl’s camp, Princess disappeared. I remember thinking about the incident and the outcome and finding myself in disagreement with my mother. I was taking singing lessons at the time and Mabel Henry Young let me pore through the pictures in her over-sized book of operas. I learned that opera stories are riddled with the sizzle and fire of emotion. I knew, by then, that I didn’t have a voice suitable for professional coloratura singing. But why couldn’t I enjoy the glory of a fully feeling life?
When I was married, my husband worked for AT&T. An able executive, he would be sent to another city with each new promotion. I remember one of our first nights in Seattle, when little Colin needed comfort. How I wish I had climbed into bed beside him and held him tight. Instead, I sat on the floor beside his pillow to hear his complaints. He said he hated his new school. His new schoolmates all insisted that he fight. At the time he was reading book after book about the bloody American Civil War and he knew he didn’t want to fight.
The next week I enrolled him in the local prep school. With only one opening and several applicants, he was challenged to prove himself, and his extensive Civil War readings did. He thrived at Lakeside. He is a person who seems to have always known what he needed and how to get it. His wife, for an example, is very tactile. She rubs his back at the slightest provocation.
Now the trauma of Covid is on the wane. We can converse without the hazard of face masks and welcome our friends with a smile and a squeeze. I am so pleased that the younger members of my family are uninhibitedly demonstrative. All my grandchildren kiss me goodbye and even, on occasion, hello. But my children, who are now in their seventies, only hug me when and if I insist.