I was maybe six or seven years old, home by myself or perhaps some of my siblings were around but off in another part of the house, perhaps my mom was working and there was an hour or two when we were there before she came home from work, or maybe she was just out at the store and had left us for awhile, but in any case I was messing around in the bathroom and had a thermometer in my hand and the thermometer dropped from my hand and it broke, spreading dozens of little mercury balls all over the linoleum floor.
I went immediately into horrified panic, and I wasn’t thinking that the mercury was poison that would affect my neurological development or that it would seep into the ground and pollute our water (it was a second floor bathroom and anyway that kind of abstract thought was not available to me yet); I was thinking that I would get in trouble for breaking something, something I thought was definitely precious, a Medical Device, a specialized instrument that I had no business having had in my hand so that it could break free and fall to the floor and shatter into pieces.
Mom came home but I had a good length of time to get all stewed up about it before then and she came home to find me crying my heart out in fear and shame. She walked into the bathroom to see what had happened and I pointed out the mercury balls and waited for the bad thing that was going to happen next.
And what happened was that she scooped me up onto her lap on the top step of the staircase and held me and smoothed my hair and asked me why I was so scared.
“I broke the thermometer …it was really expensive,” I choked out.
“Do you know how much that thermometer cost?” she asked.
I searched my brain but the word “cost” had no traction on it, so I blurted out what seemed like an enormous fortune: “Five dollars?”
“About 99 cents!” she countered, laughing gently, rocking me, so that we both started laughing together, me through snotty tears. And the spell was broken, and I could let go of the upset. Five dollars, 99 cents – neither had meaning for me, but my mother’s tone of voice contained all the meanings that were relevant to a little girl, and what was imparted was that she loved me first of all and a broken thermometer could never threaten to dent that love.
Pure mom love. Sometimes I miss it – the total trust, the love that is going to take care of everything, smooth it out and make it better. I remember burying my head into her shoulder and melting into her without reservation. I had absolute claim to her comforting lap, her shoulder, her face, her hair. That was my place just as much as my own body was my place.
Later on, adolescence settled in and I threw up walls of separation, found all of mom’s faults and amplified them, anticipated what I interpreted to be her judgments of me and rejected them before she had a chance to explain about the loving place or the fearful place or just the curious place her comments and questions often came from. I wouldn’t hear any of it from her. So then when we touched it was as two, not one. There was consideration of boundaries and appropriateness, of the awkwardness of touching certain places or in certain ways. We could come together and embrace in a gesture of love but it was from two separate territories and we each had rules for the other.
I suppose this was a part of my individuation process but now, as an adult with a much-diminished charge on that particular agenda and a mother who has been dead for over four years, I sometimes mourn that we couldn’t start bridging the gap of my adolescent rebellion until we were both much older. I knew her one way, through the filter of being her daughter. She had private thoughts and memories she couldn’t or wouldn’t share with me and I could never return to the illusion that we were one body, so we attempted to forge a different kind of closeness that incorporated all of those constraints. But it was still a work in progress when she left.
My teacher points out that there’s a difference between fusion and intimacy, and I wonder sometimes if my system has figured out that difference yet. When people outside of my family reflect back on who my mother was, it’s obvious how complex she was and in a way how mysterious she remained until her death. And how loved she was – not just by those in compulsory relationships with her like “child” and “parent,” but loved by those who chose to be with her in relationships that were uncluttered by murky memories of fusion. Perhaps intimacy begins when we can acknowledge the murkiness but keep our focus on what’s beyond it. Could I have been more intimate with mom if I weren’t her daughter? But then, everything would have been different.