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Everything is Sticky

November 10, 2013

Last week I proposed to write weekly previews of chapters that will make up this new project, My Mother’s Cross. So far, I’ve shared previews of the introductory chapter called “Maternity Leave,” and a chapter called “Hospital Domme“. Today I’m going to give you a peek into “Everything Is Sticky.”

Sex is sticky. Parent-child conversations about sex are sticky. Adult daughters negotiating the sex lives of their aging parents no doubt feel a kind of stickiness.

What I’m exploring in this chapter is the stickiness of relationships. When we talk about relationships, we often talk about bonds or ties. Ties can be made and unmade. Bonds can be broken. Ties and bonds can be neat, clean, sharp, hard, stifling, flexible, and they can be sticky. The ties between my mother and me were very sticky ones.

The story of my relationship with my mother included the stickiness of a codependency that had roots in her alcoholism and recovery during my childhood, and which involved a very sticky degree of role reversal while I was growing up. For the first four months of the “maternity leave” that I took to help care for her at the end of her life, I lived in her apartment.

The phrase “everything is sticky” is a reference to the patina of chocolate syrup, root beer, barbecue sauce and cigarette ash that clung in differing concentrations and intensities to many of the surfaces in her apartment. But it is also a reference to that old codependence of my childhood, something I tried very hard not to fall back into for fear that, like some giant bottomless tar pit, it would not let me go a second time.

A generous friend invited me to move into her house for, essentially, the remainder of my mother’s life, and my sister came to help clean out mom’s apartment. Even if mom survived this particular crisis, it had become clear she would not be able to live there again. Stickiness pervaded the experience my sister and I shared as we cleaned out her things, finding sex toys and supplies in the unlikeliest of places.

It’s entirely coincidental that as I was thinking about this today, reading the paper and sipping my coffee, I should come across a short essay by Joyce Walder in the New York Times. Walder exhorts her baby boomer cohort to clean out the sex toys or love letters in their attics, or to assign a trusted friend the role of Eradicator, in order to avoid the presumably horrifying experience that will face adult children who need to deal with the personal effects that are left after their parents die. “The truly considerate person will dispose of potentially humiliating or harmful items the moment he gets really sick,” she writes.

I passionately object. I think, quite frankly, that this is terrible advice. I know that my sister did not want to encounter any of the artifacts of our mother’s sex life. Yet I also know that she was not damaged by the experience when it happened. And I know that, especially given our mothers disorganization, it was a strange and awkward experience in some moments – the fox tail hiding in the shoe rack was quite the surprise! – I was actually deeply happy to be confronted by concrete evidence that my mother had been having a good time in her last years.

So I’m thinking now about developing a workshop for adult children of aging or sick parents. Instead of training boomers to hide or dispose of their sex toys, love letters, and other hints of their sexualities, why not train we the children-turned-caregivers to confront those items in a way that honors our parents’ lives – their whole lives – not just the parts that are neat and clean, but even the parts that are sticky!


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