My daughter gives me four kisses. Mwah. Mwah. Mwah. Mwah. She says it’s because she’s four years old. Four quick yet purposeful kisses on my cheek. She holds my head still while she does it and counts in between kisses. One. Two. Three. Four. Four kisses when I leave for work. Four kisses when she heads into her classroom. Four kisses goodnight. Four kisses sometimes just because she feels like it.
Growing up, my family was not very physically affectionate. There was a lot of love and stability and routine. There was dinner together every night with all four kids and our parents. There was French toast with grape jelly on Saturdays and scrambled eggs with ketchup on Sundays. But I don’t remember much hugging and kissing.
There weren’t daily goodbye kisses or nightly goodnight kisses. There were yearly birthday kisses. I laughed as my mother had to chase my brother down to administer the quick kiss that I’m sure meant so much to her.
I can recall a trip to Disney World where a happy, sleepy five-year-old me laid my head on my father’s shoulder as we rode a train around the park. I also remember it feeling unnatural. But it did feel nice. It felt like what I should do.
We held our mother’s hand when we crossed the street for safety, but I don’t remember holding on for affection once we reached the sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong. My mother was incredibly loving. She always called us kids “sweetie” and “honey,” and my father was always “dear.” But the hugging, kissing, or cuddling wasn’t a normal thing in our lives.
My father was brought up in a lot of hardship – a single mother who was sick much of the time, a father who left the family when my father was just seven years old. The pains of extreme poverty fell on my father’s little shoulders, and he dropped out of school at a very young age to take care of his sister and mother. I don’t think there was much affection in that little Newark apartment.
My mother was brought up in a typical Eastern European immigrant home. My grandfather, born in Russia, told us stories about running from the Czar’s soldiers and eating raw potatoes in a field to survive. He worked hard and wasted nothing. He made hats out of paper bags and saved every rubber band he found. He lost his first wife to tuberculosis in his 20s. I think affection and what love he was capable of died with her. I imagine such sadness was hard to process for him.
My grandmother was born in a Broome Street apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City. Double digits of siblings and a mother who spent much of her life in bed after losing one of her children in an accident. My grandmother lived a life of necessity, caring for her own grieving mother and her siblings, quietly and with purpose and dedication. She embodied the word “maternal.”
There was never a doubt that our parents loved us. Never. They sacrificed and worked hard to make our lives worry free. I always felt safe. I remember being afraid of the talk that the draft would be reinstated in 1980 and my three older brothers disappearing into the army. My mother sat by my bedside, explaining calmly that even if that did happen, my brothers would be officers and safe. “There was nothing to worry about,” she assured me. Accurate or not, there was always lots of assurance, just not accompanied by Hallmark-like hugs and kisses.
Two instances of hugging my youngest brother stand out in my mind. We were born one year and two weeks apart and raised practically as twins. The first time, we were in our 20s, and he, along with my father and our older brother, were beaten badly in an armed robbery of our family business. It was surreal to see my family on the news.
The next day, when I was able to see them in person, the urge to make sure they were actually still alive manifested itself in a hug. I grabbed my brother by the shoulders and pulled him to me as I sobbed into my own sleeve.
The second time I hugged my brother was in the hospital after my two-year-old son died in a swimming pool accident. My brother had a son just two months older than mine. His son was still here. Alive. My son was not. The hug again became a way to express and ensure that this was not a dream. This was really happening.
My urge to hug and kiss my daughter is strong and complicated. It’s a way to convince myself that she is real. She is actually here. And I can love her as much as I want. I can give her a life full of love and stability and routine with splashes of adventure.
We struggled in the fertility world to have our daughter after our son died. The loss of our son felt surreal and confusing. The universe was out of order and cruel. When our daughter was born and became a real human being after years of tears and tests and needles and procedures, hugs and kisses were the only way to assure myself my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. Grief and trauma will play with your head like nothing else in the world.
My daughter is lightness and joy, attacked with kisses and hugs morning, noon, and night. This will be her norm. These frequent hugs and kisses are as much for me as they are for her.