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If You Love Me
by Peggy Barnett

I am listening to the radio.
An advertisement comes on the air:
“Do you have thumb sucking problems?
This is Dr. M. . .
I have just opened up
my new thumbsucking clinic.
I guarantee to put an end
to this odious and
destructive addiction
or your money back.”
I remember the Great Thumb sucking War
of my childhood.

I loved sucking my thumb.
I sucked avidly,
with great pleasure,
until the age of four.
After all,
how else does one live with someone who has lost everything
to the Great Killing Machine.
You live carefully,
tiptoeing around the apartment
so that your footsteps do not wake up the dead.
The silent sounds of sucking,
the pulling and relaxing of the muscles
in my cheeks,
the swallowing of saliva,
comforted me into silence.
My thumb was my own.
At night I would sleepwalk
with my thumb in my mouth
into the dark living room.
Climbing into the blue wing chair
that sat in front of the unlit TV,
I watched grainy B/W Farmer Grey cartoons
in my dreams.

My mother became desperate.
Afraid that I would enter public school
buck toothed and labeled “slow'',
put into a class with the dumb
kids who sanded wooden blocks all day,
she resolved to end
this “odious and destructive habit.”

Mother tried everything.
She rubbed capsicum powder on my thumb.
My lips burned but I licked it off,
and sucked.
She coated it with alcohol.
It was bitter
but I licked it off,
and sucked.
She painted nail polish on,
she wrapped it in tape,
I chewed it off,
and sucked.
She threatened to cut my thumb off,
but I held onto to it,
it was mine.
She and I fought over
this part of my body,
I was determined as any boy would be to keep control of it,
to keep control of it,
she determined as any mother to claim it as her own.

Then one day she said to me:
“If you love me
you’ll stop sucking your thumb.”
I slammed into the wall of her
Teutonic “Will to Power”.
I had to prove to her that I loved her
by giving up my little life’s greatest pleasure.
Afraid that I would be thrown out of my bed,
my kitchen,
her life,
the way she had thrown Daddy out of her life,
I had no doubt that she
and would,
do it.
She broke me.
I stopped sucking my thumb.

In her victory
she hugged me,
she loved me,
she let me live with her.

The emotional aftershocks lasted
through the years.
Fear entered my life.
I became afraid of men’s thumbs.
I knew they had a hidden power over me.
I would become addicted again
to a joy that was not permitted.
How many times did I leave a room
to enter the darkness of night
with only dreams to sustain me,
a limp thumb left behind?

As long as she was alive
I didn’t have a child.
It was the only thing
she couldn’t control.
She had taken my thumb away once
and now she would have no pleasure of the
thumb I had married.
After she died I had Emma.
I was forty-three.

After menopause
those dark clouds just blew away.
But in my deepest dreams,
I still watch grainy B/W cartoons
in which a gigantic thumb runs around
the barn yard
chasing a frightened little girl.


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