I had a confidante before I knew how to read. Her name was Mrs. Finger, and she was the only person I could talk to. I was afraid of everyone and everything else: robbers, bears, death, thunderstorms. Everything. I didn’t know how to express my anxiety and I was too young to start on pills, so I acted up by fighting with my brothers and feigning sickness every day so I could stay home from school. When I did attend school, I would stare listlessly out the window, trying to pick out Cumulonimbus clouds from the regular ones. I’d stay inside during recess and read books about natural disasters, often scaring myself into complete solitude.
When I’d get home from school, I’d drown myself in TV or fight with my brothers. I was always too embarrassed to talk to my parents, so it was Mrs. Finger who I’d always turn to. She would ask me what was wrong, give me advice and comfort me. I didn’t have to tell her everything, because she always knew what I was going to say before I said it. Mrs. Finger knew when I was mad, she knew when I was sad and she knew how to make me feel better. I, on the other hand, didn’t know much about her. I couldn’t console her, I couldn’t comfort her, and I couldn’t hug her. She didn’t have arms. She didn’t have legs, she didn’t have a body. Mrs. Finger was attached to my mom’s hand. Mrs. Finger was literally a finger.
“Depression runs in the family,” said my cousin in between bites of firecracker chicken. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but he gave me an impromptu rundown of my family tree at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.
“Of course, back then they didn’t have the kind of treatments they have now,” he said. “Your mom’s mom probably had it, which explains her kind of… behavior. She was wildly funny, though. Wildly, wildly funny.”
My grandma died before I was born, but she was a Turkish Jew who escaped from Berlin during the Nazis and hid in Shanghai along with 18,000 other Jews before moving to New York City. Apparently she had a wild butsic sense of humor that I’m sure has a name is Yiddish and she passed that onto her offspring. To my mom, she was… well, tough love was an understatement about the kind of love my grandma, Rachel, gave my mom. That’s probably why my mom made Mrs. Finger.
I remember talking to her — it — her finger — candidly, as if she really was another person. Mrs. Finger would ask me what was wrong when I needed to be asked, and I would speak to her honestly. Sometimes I’d be mad at my mother, and I would still tell Mrs. Finger the truth, failing to realize the bizarre sense of trust in telling a phalange that I was upset with the woman to whom it belonged.
“I believe Mrs. Finger existed,” my mom said, when I tried to dig up some facts about my ring-finger friend. “It was like she was the patient, reasonable mother I couldn’t be because of bipolar disease. Mrs. Finger disappeared once I began taking mood stabilizers. I still miss her!”
It was the condition my cousin talked about that led to the creation and upkeep of Mrs. Finger and her extended family. (I want to say she had a distant relative that was a spider?) Unlike so many men and women in the past who let mental health issues — bipolarism, depression, anxiety — define them, my mom creatively shaped hers to fuel a character. She knew her lovely, mixed-up brain could create a friend that my crazy mixed-up brain could relate to, and we formed an unspoken pact to give this finger a soul.
“Only you needed Mrs. Finger,” my mom said. “Whenever you got angry or frustrated, you just weren’t able to express it like your brothers. I remember one time you came home from school and you were in the worst mood — throwing things and brooding. Finally, I made Mrs. Finger ask: ‘Jeremy, did something bad happen in school?’ You burst into tears and said you had a terrible day. Then you were just fine.”
I don’t remember the last time I talked to Mrs. Finger, but my mother and I never forgot her. We would always bring her up whenever it was just us two — on vacation in Cape Cod or alone at the dinner table while everyone else was outside or watching TV. I’d let out an embarrassed laugh whenever she spoke in the high-pitched voice that I always believed was coming out of the tiny mouth of Mrs. Finger.
“Hi Jeremy! It’s me, Mrs. Finger!”
“Hi, Mrs. Finger, how’ve you been?”
“Oh, fine! I just wanted to see how you were doing!”
“Good, really good. How’s my mom?”
“She’s fine! Where is she?”
I don’t regret the flock of psychiatrists or pharmacy’s worth of drugs that eventually calmed my jangled nerves and pumped me full of serotonin. Mrs. Finger helped me come to terms with my anxiety and add a little levity to the whole situation. I needed Mrs. Finger just as much as she needed me, and together we were a family. I just hope my late grandma knew that her escaping to Shanghai allowed my mother to be born, which allowed me to be born, which allowed my mother’s index finger to be born.
Thanks for listening, Mrs. Finger.