By Nancy J. Brandwein
My 13-year-old daughter and I face each other, propped against opposite ends of our worn old couch. I have my New York magazine, and she has her book. Our calves knock lazily against each other now and then, or she plants her feet flatly against the thin bones of my shins. The pressure hurts, sometimes a lot, but I treasure this contact, this skin on skin. Friends with older daughters caution that mine will likely make an abrupt break from any contact with me. My wariness of that moment (when will it happen? Will there be a sign or many signs?) makes it hard to truly relax here on the couch, but it also makes me hyper appreciative of this moment.
I like the smell of her feet, fruity from the cheap Payless flats she wears without socks. If they were anyone’s feet but hers, I’d gag, but instead I inhale their vinegary aroma the way I happily breathe in her sour cat’s maw breath when I wake her on school days. First, though, I grab her feet in both hands and give them a tug, suddenly aware of the weight and heft of this girl who had always been so slight. I rub the dry creased soles of her feet or take my index finger and, like a doctor with his rubber triangular hammer, sketch a line from big toe to heel. Her body curls deeper under her Andy Warhol duvet. But I uncover her head and kiss the sweaty brow under wisps of the tawny mane she worships. Sometimes I hold her pointed chin while she yawns in my face. I wince, but still stick close.
On weekends I often help her prep the sacred hair for yet another Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I part and comb damp hanks and hold the blow dryer, just so, at her command, to make the long honey-colored locks straighten without frizzing. At night, when I flop on her bed and sing a line from the ritual song I once used to sing her to sleep, she might pull on the frizzy ends of my middle-aged hair or mindlessly sweep it off my forehead as she tells me, excitedly, of some new plan she has of making jewelry from garbage, of selling her old clothes, or traveling to Iran. I wish I could say, as I used to when she was four and we played at hairdressing, “Do my hair.” I could command her to attend to my body—braid my hair, scratch my back, polish my nails—as she now commands me to attend to hers.
Recently my daughter asked me when she should start shaving under her arms. “If you have hair there,” I said, and boldly ventured, “Do you?” She flapped open one arm like a chicken wing to reveal a few strands of curly brown hair. “Aaw,” I said, moved. I well remember my own scrawled diary entry “I have hair under my arms!!!!” I reached out to touch her there, but she snapped her armpit shut. There are rules I must abide by, and those are, for now, namely that skin on skin is OK if she initiates the contact: her skin on my skin first, as a way of granting permission. And even then the permission might come with codicils and fine print about which I am unaware.
These days when we stroll the city streets, usually in pursuit of some clothing item from my own adolescence that she must have (desert boots … studs … peasant blouses), I am often gobsmacked by her sense of freedom with my body. My daughter pulls at my arm and lifts my hand to her mouth as if to take a giant bite. It is a game she plays, “I must bite! I must bite!” she tells me. And if I am not fast I will feel a small impression of teeth on the top of my hand. Happy in her body—and with her purchases bought with my credit—she does an impish King Tut walk in front of me, then throws an arm around my shoulder, something she can do since she is now just one inch shy of my height. Or, in a more sedate mood, she will loop her arm companionably in mine and we walk like two ladies who lunch. Yet—and there’s the fine print—when I am encouraged to hold her hand or rest my hand on her waist, she may dart away.
At other times, though, her touch reminds me that she is still very much my little girl. Coming back from our outings, we walk through the maze-like Times Square subway station, and she is young enough to fear being parted. She walks behind me, pinching the unloved loose skin at my elbow as we make our way through the crowd.
Just as I love her spontaneous hugs or love bites, I treasure my daughter’s utilitarian approach to my body—as guide through the city throngs, as footrest on the couch, as backrest while we watch TV on the living room floor. This notion of being the ground for my daughter’s explorations goes back to toddlerhood. Learning to walk, she clung to my thigh as if I were a stable oak tree. Lying on the couch trying to read the paper, I’d peer over the New York Times to see her scaling my bent knees. My memories of our sensual connection go further back, of course, to breastfeeding days. I remember that anxious moment when I’d prop her at my breast and she would fuss or twist her head the wrong way. When she finally latched on, I’d will myself to stay stock still, so tenuous did the connection seem, until she sucked in long regular draughts and I could relax and shift position. Even when the feed was going well, though, I was unable to multitask when breastfeeding—all those fantasies of reading Trollope’s Barchester Towers in small increments went quickly out the window. Most of all, I loved to attend, not just to the moment, which seemed always to stand outside of time, but to revel in the accretion of moments, which would, with time and the gradual weaning, soon be labeled a “stage” and put behind us.
Those stages of infancy, toddlerhood or even early childhood seemed so clearly demarcated, unlike the messiness of adolescence. Those same friends who warn me not to bask so in the physical connection with my daughter told me that her period, which she announced from behind a closed bathroom door, would presage raging hormones, bitter fights, or worse: an icy hatred. It’s hard to imagine this as my 13-year-old daughter and I face each other on opposite ends of our worn old couch, our calves knocking lazily against each other. “Ouch,” I cry when her sharp, unclipped toenail scratches my shin, but I wear the thin red scrape like a badge of motherly pride. “See,” I want to tell the naysayers, “We still touch. We are still close.” But just as in those days when I held her to my breast, I feel I must hold my breath and remain absolutely still, like a table or a chair. I wonder when “close” will become “closed.” It is enough, for now, to lie across from my daughter on the old green couch or, if I’m really lucky, to squeeze next to each other down its length. Then her fragrant hair potions waft over me as her elbow jabs my side every time she opens and closes her book. Sometimes her long tapered feet actually trap my own against the nubby couch fabric—as if she, too, is willing me to stay.
Nancy J. Brandwein is a freelance writer (www.nancyjbrandwein.com) who has published in The New York Times, Brain, Child, West Side Spirit and Hippocampus Magazine. She lives in New York City with her husband and two teenaged children.
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