Love don’t leave me waiting

When I was a teenager, my parents were in the throes of losing me. They stood on the cragged, rocky shore of parenthood, watching my childish form fade and recede into the opaque mist, as I set out on my own journey across the murky waters of young adulthood. They couldn’t see if I’d make it to the far shore, safe and assured. They could only hope for the best, and wave, and smile, even if they could no longer recognize my silhouette on life’s horizon. I was not their little girl anymore, and none of us knew how to handle that. It was a difficult time, as I suppose it always must be, for parents and their burgeoning teenagers.

During those years, my mother was throwing herself into volunteer work at a historic museum in our town — an 18th-century building that was once a roadside tavern in our small Connecticut village, and which proudly sported a British musket in a corner post of its structure. She dressed in period-appropriate garb and gave tours of the past. She had asked me to volunteer alongside her, to find a commonality for us to share, but I could think of no greater embarrassment for an awkward, big-breasted and -nosed teenager than Revolutionary War-era dress. I politely declined the bonnet, and donned stereo headphones instead, in muffled rebellion.

We occasionally attended concerts together as a family, when they were featured on the museum’s calendar of events. There were jazz ensembles, string quartets, evenings of mournful violins and cellos out on the dewy dusk grass.

Such music was always stirring for me. It still is. Perhaps for many of us. It spurred emotions, thoughts, feelings — sometimes overpowering and consuming. At one chamber music performance, I sat on the folding chairs beside my mother and father, and felt a moment of connection to them as the music swelled. I sensed something, a life force, maybe, that surrounded me, and I was filled with warmth while sitting next to my father, who was alive, and healthy, and still mine. Instinctively, I wanted to physically connect with him, since I couldn’t speak in the midst of the performance, and I put my head on his shoulder. He turned to me sharply and said, “Don’t do that.” I jerked upright, embarrassed and electrified at his rejection.

I don’t know why he reacted so strongly. I don’t know why he thought it was wrong. But as much as the statement “I love you” was indeed uttered in our house, the physicality of it was not as often enacted. The words were stated — daily — but something was amiss. We were all aloof and awkward in our own bodies, and in our sense of physical being. My parents hugged me, of course, but there wasn’t a great deal of additional affection administered. More by my mother. Less by my father. My parents didn’t hold hands, or dance together in the kitchen. I don’t remember being touched a lot. We didn’t snuggle together on the couch to watch movies, as my family does now. I arrived home from college once, to see my father’s head on my mother’s lap while they watched television. He had a headache, and he’d asked her for comfort while he waited out the dissolution of the fast-acting Advil gel capsule. She remarked about it to me later in the kitchen, once he’d fallen asleep on the couch, because the act was so rare, so out of character for him. It was surprising — to all of us.

True, families were different then. I only recall one of my four grandparents being physically affectionate with me. These were the people who had raised my parents. For some of us, the walls formed by hardship, by infant death and immigration, by poverty and ignorance, by culture and religious codes, all remained intact, for years after their forming. Each generation tried to do better — striking at the emotional plaster, the framework, the thickness of the distance.

It was difficult, too, then, for fathers to continue to love their daughters, once they reached a certain age. We had roughhoused and wrestled when I was little, almost nightly, once his briefcase hit the kitchen floor, and the smell of his aftershave and sweat and gabardine surrounded and secured me. I was once a little girl, lifted high into the air, admired, adored — and as a teenager, left alone, reconsidered. There was no common ground for us, either, as teenage daughter and middle-aged father. I was no longer his “Bonzo,” as he once called me, his pet monkey to scurry along beside him, and clamber onto his shoulders, tall and proud, while we picked apples together in the fall. I was a stranger in the house. I was a stranger to myself, sometimes.

Earlier this week, my husband, son and I attended a town meeting, in support of a pressing issue affecting our small community. I left during the break, so I could get my son home and into bed, and I walked over to my husband’s seat so my boy could say goodnight to his father. They hugged and kissed each other, and my son caught sight of our neighbor, a man he’s known since he was a toddler, and kissed him on the cheek, too. My neighbor didn’t recoil or seem embarrassed. He readily accepted it. He welcomed it. It was honest, and pure. As affection should be. It was a beautiful gesture to witness. I hope he’s a man who kisses and hugs other people, who offers affection openly. He hugs his friends, and at times, those restricting walls from my past appear, and I feel a tug of concern. Should he still be doing that? Is it appropriate? Will his friends make fun of him? But I don’t reject his actions. At times, I ask him to consider other people and to be aware of how they’re feeling, how to sense if someone is shying away from your affection. But I never ask him to reject it within himself. I never teach him that it’s wrong. Because it is no such thing.

I know that there is a place on the shore of parenthood for me, too. There will be a a time when I will no longer recognize the people that my children are in the process of becoming. But I’m trying to chip away at the aging structure that contained my own experience. I’m trying to maintain communication, trying to keep the love flowing between us. Whenever I can, whenever they stay still long enough for me to do so — I hold my children’s faces in my hands, and smooth locks of hair from their sweaty foreheads. I kiss them, tenderly, and tell them that I love who they are. I make too many mistakes as their mother throughout the day for me not to at least offer that kindness. I welcome family snuggles in our too-small bed. I burrow under blankets with them during movie night. I pat pillows and ask my children to rest their heads. And they do. They still wrap hands around mine, rake fingers through my long hair, ask for hugs and kisses and cuddles on sleepy weekend mornings. I happily bestow all of it. I’m trying to normalize love and affection for them, so they welcome more of it into their lives when they recede into the mist. I’m trying to help them set their compass for better lands.

I joke with my husband that I’m a middle-aged rhesus monkey, but I am no longer so fearful of physical affection. I’m comfortable in my own skin, even though it sags and ripples in certain areas. I welcome it, readily. I hug friends when I first meet them. I kiss cousins noisily. I tousle children’s hair and touch shoulders. I see now how crucial it is for all of us to thrive, to live, to be.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for a good pedicure. It’s a small indulgence that I like to partake in, a few times a year. Not every week. Not every month. Perhaps before a family party, or at Christmas.

It’s something I hadn’t done, years ago. I used to feel much more out-of-sync with my body than I do now. Perhaps that’s just my upbringing. Perhaps it’s the time I was raised in. Perhaps that’s that what twenty-two feels like for a lot of people. But now, at forty-three, I’ve eased into myself. My body is a soft, richly-knit model of the finest cashmere. I sink into it, satisfied.

I go to the nail salon. I sit in those silly fake leather chairs and remove my flip-flops. And I thank the estheticians many times throughout my appointment. Thank you for checking the water temperature in the foot spa, so my feet aren’t burned. Thank you for adjusting my seat, and for asking if I want that God-awful massage feature turned on. (That’s made for men, that Brookstone-ish thing, because it hits women in the wrong places along our spines, and threatens to paralyze us with its misplaced, heat-sensored kneading. It’s designed, as so many other things are in this world, for taller, right-handed men, and not shorter, left-handed women like me. But I thank them just the same for the effort.) Thank you for the lotion to soften my skin, for the warm, comforting stones pressed into the arches of my tired, aching feet. Thank you for your care.

Sometimes, I read a magazine or check my phone. But I try to maintain connection to the women who work hard and enact such comfort and kindness. Yes, yes — I’m sure that they’re gossiping about me in a language that I don’t understand. Yes, yes — I’m a woman of certain means. I am spoiled with indulgences — a roof over my head and the luxury of being a stay-at-home parent and having a full refrigerator and gas tank. There is no holiness or dharma talk in Essie nail polish and brown sugar scrubs.

But I make eye contact, and smile, and one of the ladies has said to me, while patting my shinbone, “You are good. We like you.”

And I thank her again. And try not to get teary. Because that is all any of us really need. Connection. Affirmation. Affection.

You are good.

You will reach the distant shore. You will be a citizen of better lands.


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