Licking the Fence

One of my earliest memories as a child comes from a preverbal place almost beyond my ability to recollect. I was sitting outside on a warm spring day licking my parent’s chain link fence. If I close my eyes I can still taste the gritty metallic flavor and see the shiny places where my tongue had already been. Of course, as a toddler cleaning the fence was a huge task, but I now think it was no more than two eight foot sections that ran along the back of the driveway separating our detached one car garage from my mother’s garden where the bleeding hearts grew. I loved those dripping pink flowers. I also liked that they had something to do with heart, because, I think, even then, I knew that I would be one to follow my heart no matter how much it made me bleed.

I don’t know where my mother was as I sat on the cement driveway performing my sanitary charge. In embarrassment, my adult analytical mind wants to rush to my aid, not unlike a nauseated parent imaging the unimaginable array of bacterial inhabitants moving in my mouth. God girl, what are you thinking? But I hold this judgment at bay, because the sense of accomplishment that fills my must-have-only-been-two-or-three-year-old body is awesome. I sit with her feelings, letting them seep in. Did she know something that I don’t? That my parents could not have known? A young body’s need for some deficient mineral that issued forth from some primordial instinctual depth beyond the ken of a clinically trained registered nurse, or perhaps I was merely a toddler mimicking her mother’s cleaning of the house. Inside, the sanitized house in a sanitized world was important to Mom.

I sit here now with my preverbal self. She’s moved to the garden side of the fence. Butt in dirt, tiny body now hidden by the bleeding heart bush, green leaves tickling her back, tongue out, savoring the flavor of dirt on metal. Her enjoyment is beyond measurement.

I think it must be a mammalian sense of acquiring immunities: Saccharomyces Boulardii that you can now buy it in little pills in the probiotic section of the natural foods store. Could I have known my immune system needed a boost from the earth— no nature deficit disorder for this girl. As I gather small doses of foreign matter to fully develop my antibodies for later use, I turn to my older self with an all-knowing glare. I hush conspiratorially with small fingers covering my drooling muddy mouth. I knew already that mother would not be pleased and I also knew that she would never understand the joy. Giggling, I go back to my task of cleaning the fence, letting the tiny irregular bumps of silver fence leave a tactile memory, a gift that can be traced years later.

I don’t remember much after that, like a dream that starts to dissipate the memory dissolves. No doubt it wasn’t pleasant once my mother discovered the fence, cleaned a third of the way, front and back by a tiny tongue. As a nurse, microbiology replaced any deeper mothering instinct for nurturing my passions. I can’t blame her, it was the 1950s, and bottle fed babies raised by the expertise of science and the likes of over prescribing antibiotics prevailed—the same folks that urged my mother to put hot pepper on my thumb to keep me from shoving it in my mouth. Like all children I was such an oral child, everything in the mouth. I didn’t care. I also clearly remember promising not to suck my thumb, waiting until they left the room, and then proceeding to lick my thumb clean, like a cat licks its fur, my new nightly ritual before securely sticking thumb in mouth and drifting off to sleep.

Years later my grandmother would tell my husband I liked to chew. At the time I thought it odd. It was true, I had become one of those people who could chew gum for an hour and a half and not notice it had lost all of its flavor until my jaw started to hurt, but come on, of all things to say… not, “she’s creative”, not, “she’s smart,” “dynamic” or even “pretty” or a “good cook”, but “she likes to chew?”

My mind wanders to kisses and the taste of sweat and how utterly childlike lovemaking can be. How in the midst of passion, sometimes, I feel a bit like that toddler and her fence, innocent and joyful, cherishing textures and tastes and not caring about the way anything was supposed to be. Smiling, I think, Grandma, knew me better than I had known myself. She was after all a woman from the old country, and I think her lineage went back to the beginning of time and unlike my mother, she had the memory for it having never lived in such a sanitized world.



About Karen Walasek

Karen Walasek (midwife poet painter novelist essayist and biodynamic farmer) has been a mentor to writers at Hillhouse Writers in Tennessee for seven years. She received her MFA & BA in creative writing from Goddard College where she also studied the psychology of creative relationships. As a graduate student at Portland State University her work includes aspects of cultural studies, rhetoric and conflict resolution. Passionate about alternative ways of learning; she homeschooled three now adult children with her lifelong partner musician-writer, Ron Heacock.
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