Sometimes with Rebecca I feel like I’m a place as much as a person. My body is her habitat: arms, a heartbeat, and two breasts. It makes me feel cozy. What can a place do wrong? All a place needs to do is be present and be itself, and that’s enough. That’s exactly the right thing for a place to do.
It reminds me how comforting my own mother’s body was. One night when Rebecca fell asleep with her legs on top of mine, I woke up mistaking my own legs for my mom’s legs–I pictured my thighs with her burn scar, not my mole–and thinking what a warm snuggly place they were to rest. Other times when Rebecca grabs my belly or a newly emptied boob, I have a sense memory of loving that stretchy skin when I was a baby. It’s uncanny–in the Freudian sense, even–because I have it in my head that I’m not supposed to touch this mama flesh, and that’s mingled with a hint of learned revulsion for bellies on women. Mostly I’m in awe that my memory seems to have returned these feelings to me, like a lost wallet that still has all the cash in it.
But memory is tricky. The effect of my dreams has been to overwrite images of what my mother looked like naked, so that now when I try to picture her stomach, I see mine instead. It’s like my tummy’s travelled back in time. That’s empowering, right? Because if I can locate the stability and safety of my mom’s presence in my own post-pregnant body, then I still have it, even if its price was a memory of her.
Now, I know from a feminist perspective that imagining the mother as the baby’s place is trouble. It downplays the role of other people and social structures in shaping Rebecca’s environment, and it conceals the fact that being present is work – work that relies on my mind and will as much as my body. Indeed, the reason it’s powerful to pretend I’m a place is the internal struggles it erases. When I leave the room, Rebecca tends to object, even when I’m just grabbing laundry, a coke, or the stapler, and even if she didn’t seem to be paying any attention to me the moment before. It’s typical baby, even for a whopping nine-monther like mine, and it makes getting things done stressful. If you’re not doing anything with me, Monkey, then can’t I do my own thing? Do I have to be the stage for your play? So that’s where my fantasy of being a place comes in, to reclaim myself from the half-read email I left in the other room and insist on my share of Rebecca’s putative Eden.
If you let your feminist gaze drift past your mother’s body, you’re also overlooking an important part of what mothers do. When my mom died, I grieved for her first as a beloved friend, based on the relationship we had as adults, even though images from my childhood kept grabbing me. I figured that life was already twenty years gone when my mom was still alive, so why cry for it now? And anyway, wasn’t the magical mother who made everything okay mostly a figment of her kid’s myopia? She had swallowed feelings and needs that weren’t always met. She was hospitalized for depression twice when I was in middle school. By the time I was in high school, I was resolute about interacting with her as a person instead of a role. Nevertheless, when she died, all the things she’d given me, all the things she’d done, and all the scattered pieces of who she’d been became unmoored from time, so that they were simultaneously more present and more absent than they’d been when her living body anchored them. I didn’t get to choose which ones to mourn.
Now, two years later, I’m thinking that the safe place my mom made for us as babies was just as real and meaningful as the relationship we built later with words. That maybe the comfort her body gave us was just as much a part of her as the later friendship–not a denial of her being, but work that engaged it–and further, that that part is still viscerally with me. I thought for sure that it had been cremated.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Tiamat, the mother goddess whose dismembered corpse became the earth. Does it make sense to say that Tiamat is dead, when the earth around us is growing and alive?