The Book of Longing 3.

Quint Buccholz Ten

Some thoughts about how we are formed

When I was a child my life divided itself into two seven-year cycles, during which events occurred that could not have been predicted.

The first seven years  I spent with grandparents who loved and nurtured me. Those were the golden years.

The second cycle of seven I spent with my mother and stepfather who neither loved nor nurtured me, and during those years I came to believe I had no autonomy, but that I existed only to be what they wanted me to be.

The third cycle, after escape from that dyad, was chaotic and filled with fear but it was the first two cycles that formed me, and influenced every aspect of my life.

There are schools of thought that insist our present is determined by our past and until we recognise this we are doomed to repeat it. The repetition compulsion, Freud named it, in which we are unconsciously compelled to re-stage our traumas in a desperate effort to this time, overcome them.

This thinking makes some sense to me. The past can hold us in place when the organism’s instinct is to progress. Why, then, would it be so surprising that we would set ourselves the task of re-enacting what imprisons us, with the goal of bending the past’s steel bars sufficient enough for us to crawl through them, to freedom?

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He writes, because I am uncertain: I will NEVER be “rejecting” you. NEVER. NEVER – do you understand?  NEVER.

Thank you, my love, for this reassurance. 

He asks me, when he is facing some unpleasant medical procedure, if I will give him an image he can think of to distract him from the experience. His favourite is of me suckling him, holding his head against my breast as he lies across my lap, stroking his forehead, his cheek, as he feeds.

I am at times his secret mother in our secret coupling.

This is surprising to me as I’ve never thought of myself as especially maternal.

But thinking myself un-maternal is  inaccurate. What I wasn’t drawn to, and still resist, are the managerial expectations the word maternal implies. That I will “mother” in the sense of finding socks and knowing where everyone should be and when. All the mind-cluttering tasks people should, after a certain age, learn to do for themselves. There is little so crippling for either party than when one person unnecessarily takes entire responsibility for things another can do perfectly well.

I have always needed time to think. A woman’s need to think ought not to be routinely displaced by the imagined obligation to service the wants of others. This is not what is expected to happen when men need to think. This is not how men are expected to daily demonstrate their love.

I am anxious tonight, love. Give me an image I can go to sleep with.

Remember our tongues? 

Oh yes, how fierce they were!  

And how sweetly they loved one another?

Aaaah! Yes, I remember. Oh Lordy, how I remember!  And how you trace the ridge between my balls with the tip of your tongue. So gentle. So loving. 

I will sleep now, lovely lady. And you must too. Night night my love. And thank you.

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I only began to learn how to consciously comfort with my body when my husband became ill. Although I hoped his hardship was eased by my new skill I couldn’t be sure, as he had few ways of telling me.

I knew though, that he wanted my presence and assistance. When nurses brought his food he waved them away with his good hand, pointed at me and gabbled in his alien tongue. He would not accept feeding from anyone else. So I thought, he knows me, and he feels my love.

I spooned the infant nourishment into his mouth, opened like a baby bird for its parent’s beak. Gently, I wiped his beloved face. I remembered as I did so the times when he wept for some sorrow and I would lick up his tears, an animal mother cleaning up an offspring, and then we would laugh, and likely make love.

He was sometimes tender-hearted, and at that those times wept easily. Say Wednesday, he would laugh at himself, and a Jewish man will cry.

I didn’t fully realise the power of the body to comfort until my lover told me. Feeling my skin against his, remembering our bodies together, conjuring me up at his most testing moments. How my love, his love, our love soothed him as he struggled with procedures and their aftermath.

The moment he asked or wrote that he needed my body I responded as if it was the most natural thing, and my mind followed quickly with the few words required.

This is what human beings can do for one another, even when a thousand miles apart. With our bodies. With our minds. I never knew.

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In winter, my grandmother scrubbed me in the kitchen sink, while I looked out of the window at our snowy garden in the early evening light. Later I was tucked into a bed already warmed by a heated brick wrapped in flannel.

My aunt painted my small toenails a pearly pink, as she sat beside the kitchen stove attending to her own manicure.

My uncle carried me on his shoulders through the house, and my head almost touched the ceiling, so tall was he.

My grandfather took me in my pram to his working men’s club where he parked me in a corner and his friends fed me lemonade and crisps. More than once he drank too much and forgot me when the time came for him to walk home. Eventually, my grandmother would tolerate his forgetfulness no longer, and he was forbidden to take me on his outings with his friends. Instead, he wheeled me soberly around the park.

My father was unknown to me.

And I have no memories of my mother at this time.

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 My lover’s wife (this is how she introduced herself to me when first we spoke, this is …’s wife) told me that after seeing an image of my husband she thought he looked a lot like hers.

I don’t know how to name this woman. I’m discomfited by referring to her as his wife, or the wife, or my lover’s wife, or Wife, as a universal. Neither can I bring myself to create a name for her, because then I will be creating a character who is in keeping with that name, and she will not be her.

I apologise for describing a woman as “his wife.”

I don’t know what his wife meant by remarking how physically alike our husbands seem to her to be. For to me, intimately knowing both men, there is no resemblance at all. Was she implying that it wasn’t really her husband I loved, but what I saw in him that reminded me of my own lost spouse?

I have careful compared the two men in every way. Except in the matter of their physical frailty and need for loving comfort, they couldn’t be more different.

If I was removed from the equation they probably would have liked each other.

A brilliant edginess (in the sense of the avant-garde) was my husband’s defining characteristic, the unique sensibility he brought to every thought, always unexpected, sometimes offensive, usually poetic.

Old girlfriends would visit, and tell me, I just want to have a bit of his mind, and I knew exactly what they meant and we would sit around our kitchen table drinking tea while he riffed, making great imaginative lunges between apparently disparate topics, for that was his interest, the connections between things, finding them, inventing them, describing them.

I think, when considering intelligence, it is more a matter of imaginative courage combined with learning. The intelligent and courageous imagination is a wondrous thing, especially when it is lived through the body as well as the mind and heart.

I know that had my husband loved another woman as my lover loved me he would not have kept it secret from me. I have no idea what the outcome of such revelation would have been, but I know he could not have loved another so deeply, and tried to live as if there was nothing different in his life and, necessarily, mine.

That is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two.

Maragaret Olley. Poppies and checked cloth image_web

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