Left Thumb, Right Hand, Lips: A Short History of (My) Thumb Sucking

Judy Labensohn

My mother looks for her lost child in the linen closet at 4 a.m. Where is my baby? she asks the elegant folded bath towels. Dressed in a nightshirt, she roams the halls of her independent living facility. Where do I belong? she asks the guard who finds her sitting on the floor.
         “Your mother can’t stay here anymore,” her caregiver tells me in the morning.  “She needs a closed ward.”
        This is the first day of my two-week visit to Sarasota, and the impulse to suck my thumb is strong. But now, at sixty-one, I have speech and the use of my appendages to cope, so I walk towards my mother, arms outstretched, and say, “I love you, Mom.”
        She winces; I retreat.
        Might the hug squeeze out the dead baby who heralded my mother’s first death?

# # #

1. Left Thumb

I was five and three-quarters when my mother first died. I put my thumb in my mouth and sucked. She needed six shock treatments to stand her back up at the kitchen sink, well-coiffed and aproned. Unsure of her substantiality, I sucked my left thumb another four years, nail facing down. My tongue grasped the thumb from below and held it tightly against my upper palate. This created a suction, which I maintained through fierce movement in my cheek muscles. My teeth also held the thumb in place. While I thus sucked my thumb, the rest of my miraculous hand was positioned in a fist with the knuckles pointing towards heaven. The index finger rested on my upper lip. From there it rose slightly and rubbed the tip of my nose or played along its spine. If the finger had touched mundane food—an apple or jelly doughnut—during the day, and if I hadn’t washed my hands, then the pleasure of thumb-sucking multiplied ten-thousandfold.
        Like Gaul, all thumbs are divided into three parts. Starting from the top we have the tip phalange with the nail; below it, the lower phalange. The ball of the thumb, known as the Mount of Venus, is the area through which hand-readers investigate the sublimated expressions of the sex instinct. The human thumb metacarpal is wider than that of the earliest hominids. This wide metacarpal enables the thumb to rotate and grasp objects like slippery spaghetti and mashed potatoes by pressing them against the rest of the hand, which is why our thumbs are called opposable thumbs.

         The joy of thumb sucking is enhanced when the child clings to a beloved grungy blanket or smelly teddy bear. In my case, a dirty fuzzy blue and white teddy with black button eyes and three black threads for a nose/mouth served as the transitional object. Two blue arms emerged like two sides of a cross from a white, cylindrical body, and two blue legs formed an upside-down Y.
        This creature was nameless and lacked gender. It carried me back to a time when humans practiced walking erect. When I sucked my left thumb and held teddy in the crease of my left arm close to my heart, I floated in fleshy clouds. Time, with its meager past, present and future, became irrelevant. Freud describes this sensation as a “form of an orgasm.”
        Fifty-two years have passed since I stopped sucking my thumb, but I still dream about teddy. One night I was flying in a small airplane. Someone asked all those without parents to stand up, and I was among the few who stood. While standing, I bent over to look out the window of the plane. There, hovering in space outside the window and slightly over the plane, was an unmanned and unwomanned space satellite. It watched over the small, precarious plane and took pictures, but it could not intervene. It could only record. I stared at the strange satellite. Suddenly, a wave of shock made me lose my balance and I sat down. The satellite was the same shape as teddy. In fact, it was teddy … in orbit. Ever since this dream, I think of God as a floating teddy bear.

        Just as I associate the American Revolution with Boston, so I associate thumb sucking with the living room. This green space resembled both a cave and a cathedral. A green, tufted carpet covered the floor where I lay. The carpet was so soft you could imagine falling into it and ending up in a cavern covered with moss, dripping with tears. If I pressed my right thumb into the carpet, I could create a dent, which would grow deeper and larger. The carpet, hungry for bad little girls who sucked their thumbs, could suck in my whole right hand, the wrist, yea, to the elbow and shoulder. Like quicksand, the carpet could draw me down.  I feared drowning. Sucking hard on my left thumb provided the only defense against this pull into nothingness.
        The ceiling of the gothic living room rose to a height of four fathers. I felt as high as an ant.  In the middle of the spire hung a long golden chain. On the end of that chain swung a chandelier with eight bulbs. If I was bad—jumping on the couch, for instance, or squishing a pillow—the chandelier could fall on my head. The house itself would punish me for being a child: I told you to be still. Now look what you’ve done.
        On silent afternoons when nobody seemed to be home, I lay at the foot of the striped yellow and brown couch—the colors of vomit that blended well with the green carpet—and gazed upward, left thumb stationed in mouth. Just as I feared sinking through the carpet to an abyss more silent than my own home, so too I feared floating into oblivion through the ceiling. At any moment I might float away through the invisible small hole next to the chandelier. Nobody inside the house would notice I was gone while I floated outside in endless space. Sucking my left thumb was the only anchor I had to stay grounded in the green living room. As long as my thumb was in my mouth, I would not disappear like a helium balloon, or worse, die like my baby brother Joey.
        Born in 1949, a month before my fourth birthday, Joey suffered a brain hemorrhage at birth. This left him, in the words of the medical establishment, “a vegetable.” In addition to being unable to see, hear, or grasp, he could not suck.  During the nineteen months he lived at home crying, I sucked for both of us.

2. Right Hand

On Thanksgiving Day, 1954, I gave up thumb sucking.
        It seemed safe. Nobody in the family had died since Joey abandoned me on February 24, 1951. After the shock treatments, my mother slipped back into her routine of making Jell-O and going to the beauty shop. Even when she went on a short vacation to St. Thomas with my father in the spring of ‘52, mirabile dictu, she returned. The new baby brother, Jim, born nine months after the first baby brother died, was about to celebrate his third birthday right after Thanksgiving. Rather than suck his thumb, he slid it into a baseball mitt. How embarrassing that his nine-year-old sister still sucked hers.
        Guests arrived on Thanksgiving Day for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. I wanted to feel larger than an ant.
        Before that day, I had sucked off iodine, nail polish and nail polish remover from my left thumb. For all I know I sucked off pulverized rat poison as well.  My parents wanted me to stop thumb sucking, but nothing could stop me until, full of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, I willed my way into latency. Relax,Icommanded my left arm.  Do not bend at the elbow. Do not lift thumb to mouth.

        In America the sucking instinct peaks at two years old. Ninety-five per cent of thumb suckers stop by the age of six.  In other places, such as highland Papua New Guinea, the Peruvian Andes and Nepal, thumb sucking is “completely absent,” according to Katherine Dettwyler, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University. This is because continual breast-feeding satisfies the baby’s sucking instinct.
        “It is clear from both cross-cultural and cross-species field studies that, given complete contact with mother and free access to the breast on demand, human children (and young of our close relatives, the great apes) do not suck on their thumbs or fingers,” writes Dettwyler.
        I think I can claim with certainty that, had I nursed until six or seven, I too would not have sucked my thumb until nine.

        Unbeknownst to me, during my last years of left-thumb sucking, my right hand was cutting through thorns, clearing the underbrush, preparing the way for salvation.
        Sollu sollu, panu derech, Isaiah sings. My right hand took note. In first grade it learned to print the letters of the English alphabet. Clutching the No. 2 yellow pencil with thumb and two fingers, as only an evolved human with an opposable thumb can, my hand drew consonants and vowels. Miss Gelsenliter stood at the front of the class next to the blackboard, shouting orders: Stay inside the lines. Don’t leave the turquoise borders. Finally, borders. I obeyed. I sensed that these marks, these dents on the universe, might save me. The letters were the ropes and rings that would prevent my drowning or floating away, the pencil, my life preserver.
        If in first grade my right hand perfected the square dance of manuscript, in second grade it learned to waltz. For script I released my tight grip on the yellow pencil and let her loose. The Palmer method of penmanship, developed by Austin Norman Palmer (1860-1927), encouraged the relaxed muscular movement of the hand while the arm rested on a desk at all times.
        When I wrote my name in Palmer script, I created a miraculous entity that held me in a way no human being had. The letters contained me like soft hands on my shoulders. They gave me a sense of beginning and end, of borders and protection. Like a good hug and a good thumb, they offered an antidote to chaos. The letters, written on lines thin as butterfly wings, grounded me on Manila paper. If the chaos sparked by a dead baby brother and an emotionally dead mother pushed me into the fetal position on the living room floor, I stood erect on the Manila page.  Handwriting became my preferred home.
        The other preparation for a new life in a post-thumb-sucking world was Miss Siler’s weekly singing class. This white-haired woman rolled a black piano into our second grade classroom on Monday mornings. All twenty-five of us sat at her feet, cross-legged, as if she were a guru. She told us to open our red songbooks to page twenty-three, and there we found a drawing of a mountain, a bird, four lines of music and words to a song:

        If I could fly across the sky
        On feathered wings in the morning breeze,
        I'd fly away at break of day
        Across the tops of the Pyrenees.

        You didn’t need a geography lesson to know that the world offered places of escape that were more inviting than the Cuyahoga River. You could visit these places by singing.  Music class was one of those rigid frameworks in which the soul, that inner garden with streams connected to the thumb, could soar.
        These two discoveries—script and song—joined forces to create a new world into which I moved after I went cold turkey on Thanksgiving, 1954. With my left hand dangling by my side, or propped on the dining room table for support, my right hand began to write poems. Poems could be hung on a bulletin board in the school hallway. They could appear in the smelly, stenciled, purple print school newspaper. That newspaper could be taken home. On the way home, a wind could lift it and send it all over northern Ohio. People you didn’t know in Sandusky or Akron could read your poems.  You didn’t have to go anywhere.  All you had to do was sit at a table, tap into the rhythms and rhymes that filled your head and feet, let them out through your right hand and sign your name at the bottom. Through writing, you could be seen and heard.
        Never again would I suck my left thumb (except for research purposes).  Rather, I would hold a pencil or pen in my right hand and nudge it along straight lines, hoping for a revelation. Writing connected me, like thumb sucking had for the first nine years of life, to that hidden inner garden of hunger and thirst.

        My left thumb did not abandon me, like my dead brother Joey. Rather, it behaved like my traumatized mother: pregnant silence become flesh.  My thumb moved with me to Jerusalem in 1967 and resides with me still in the Holy Land. Like the goat trails that dent the Judean hills, so the lines that cross the skin of my aging thumb show me where I have been.
        I feel a tingling in my left hand now. All this theorizing about the act has awoken my limp friend. Ahh, my thumb, I hear you.  The tips of the fingers on my left hand tingle. Is it safe? the reconnaissance unit asks. Yes, come to my mouth.
        Slowly,you come, my beloved friend. Now you rest on my tongue like you used to.
        But it’s not the same. We’re not alone. Look, I tell my left thumb. Watch my right hand pick up the pen and push it along. See how it flies. We are all together now, whole. The left side nourishes, and the right lets it out.

3. Lips

Two months after I stopped sucking my thumb, my mother suggested I take trumpet lessons.
        “Trumpet lessons will be good for your lips,” she argued.
        “But I like playing ‘Joey’ on the piano,” I said.
        “All that thumb sucking ruined your lips,” she countered.
        My mother believed that learning the pressing position needed to extract a sound from the trumpet would mold my lips back into shape, the shape God meant for lips: 1950’s Midwestern flat.
        Rather than learn trumpet, I practiced hiding my lips. I didn’t need any trumpet teacher to tell me to flatten them. What was a conscience for?  I pasted a harmless smile, Rated G, between my nostrils and chin.
        When it came time for lipstick, my mother suggested pastels.
        “Cover only the lower half of your upper lip,” she instructed.  “You don’t want to draw attention.”
        It was all right for Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot to have big lips. They were European. The Negroes down on Hough and the Italians in Little Italy could get away with big lips, too. White Jewish girls in the suburbs, trying to lead proper, white Protestant lives, no, that would never do.

4. Salvation

Through writing, I learned that Joey was buried inside me. Through writing, I was able to see the traumatic years at mid-century from my mother’s point of view. Writing helped me forgive her. I remembered, through writing, how much I loved my mother and how hungry I was for her love. The five-year-old in me still believes that writing, just as it brought back Joey from the dead, can bring back my mother from dementia, because writing can resurrect.
        Oh, him? He didn’t die. A woman saw him at Emmaus, walking among the vineyard three days after the burial.
        Like sucking our childhood thumbs, writing connects us to the swamps of our souls, where longings tread water. The thumb and then the pencil are the oars in the sea of our hungers. In a world where the people closest to you disappear and don’t say good-bye, where abandonment is as common as hopscotch, where the rug can swallow you into an abyss and the ceiling suck you away, thumb sucking offers support. It anchors you through the hurricane of emotions that don’t have names. The thumb is a fleshy elongated life preserver, the one solid piece of equipment, the food you can rely on when nobody is around to give you a hug, a hand, or a word.
        I say, Hurrah for Thumb Suckers, who know how to take care of themselves. I say, Long Live Thumb Suckers. It is time we former thumb suckers came out of the closet to start a lobby, strong as the American Dental Association.

        My enthusiasm is causing a tingling in my arms. I feel my hands come alive, as if they are hibernating most of the time. I stretch my fingers, which, thank God, show no signs of arthritis. I clasp my hands together in prayer and as I make this prehistoric movement, the namaskara mudra, I sense that all my life is in my hands. I avoid singing the cliché:  He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.
        Now a feeling of love floods me, washes over me from the top of my head to my feet, and all this love is directed towards my clasped hands. With my whole body, I love my hands.  I want to be good to them, treat them kindly, protect them. I separate my hands from their prayer position and make fists with each one. Slowly, I open and close each hand. I practice letting go.

# # #

My two-week visit with my mother in Sarasota has come to an end. On my last day, I tell her she needs a closed ward, preferably in Cleveland, because she wanders the halls at 4 a.m. and needs more care.
        “But I like my apartment,” she argues. “Look at those.” She points to her three silk orchids that she keeps in a vase full of water.
        “You move to Cleveland,” she says. “Who do you think you are?”
        “I am your daughter, Mom.”
        “I know perfectly well who you are. You’re . . . ” She looks around the room for an anchor, a photograph, a name. “We are . . .” she offers, “who we are.”
        I stretch out my arms towards my mother. She does not wince when I hug her. I want to hold her close to me forever, yet I retreat slightly to hold her face in my hands. With my big lips I kiss her cheeks. She is so beautiful with her gray-green eyes that mirror my love. 
        “We are who we are,” I repeat. She looks at my lips in silence. My fingers, all ten of them, massage her scalp gently, weave in out and around the short wisps of gray hair, aflame by the sense of touch.
        Suddenly they stop, overcome by the words they absorb:
        We hold the world in our hands.

Judy Labensohn holds an MA in English (fiction) from Bar-Ilan University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. She teaches writing at David Yellin College and privately mentors emerging writers. She has been Coordinator of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program since 2007. Labensohn blogs at www.WriteInIsrael.com.


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