This morning during my meditation I connected a few incidents in my life. I didn’t intend to ponder any topic. As happens sometimes, little things just pop-up during those quiet moments. The question that flitted through my head was this: what’s one good thing I did? I took a breath and let it go, promising to consider it later. And when I took time later to ask myself one good thing, at first I thought about raising children and my work, but I always felt I received as much from those as I provided.
Watching children grow into parents and then finding myself face-to-face with grandchildren fills me with awe. Parenting feels risky and sometimes as terrifying as it is joyful.
And work in social services made sense to me. My belief was that social work involved being respectfully present to others, offering whatever small supports we could while hoping the assistance would, like a pebble cast into a pond, create a ripple in the other person’s life. Even with the most respectful interaction, the highest hope was that folks who were served might realize that as they were drifting, struggling to stay afloat, a tiny adjustment in course sent them in a totally new direction, changing their life for the better.
But what stayed in my mind after my meditation was the question. How had I been the pebble?
The good thing that came to mind was this:
Within my family, our parents avoided physical displays of affection with children and youth. Growing up, my brother and I never received hugs from them. They never told us, even as small children, that they loved us. Never handed out Valentines. Never offered lavish praise. Never apologized. Most often, touch meant punishment (a pulled ear, pinched cheek, or spanking). They believed more in toughening us up and making sure we weren’t spoiled.
Other family members – our Aunties and extended family – hugged us a lot. For my brother and me, the hugs often took us by surprise and felt somewhat foreign. I remember a man and woman approached my brother and me during a family reunion. They each grabbed one of us, pulled us in for tight hugs, pushed us to arm’s length and with their hands still firmly attached to our shoulders both asked, “Whose kids are you?” My brother and I both looked at one another, our eyebrows shooting toward the stars, and after I told the adults our dad’s name they wandered happily away while my brother and I dissolved into laughter, repeating “Grown ups are so weird!” while we went seeking the table with snacks and punch.
As the eldest two children, we didn’t often suffer. There was food in the house. When we ended up sick, mom followed the family doctor’s orders, kept us home from school, brought us tea and toast, checked our temperatures regularly, and warned us to stay warm so we could “sweat out the sickness.” We had a yard to play in, clothing appropriate for each season, and a pair of dressy church shoes each year. We just didn’t receive affectionate feedback. In fact, all children (nieces, nephews, friends’ toddlers, neighbors’ kids, distant and close cousins) were prohibited targets for displays of affection.
As a toddler I began to notice that not all families operated the same way. In fact, some of our cousins complained of being smothered in affection that they found too old-country – like a gentle mauling. We believed truly white families, as evidenced by movies and television, engaged primarily in nano-second-long body-slam-like bro’ hugs and air kisses as physical affection but interacted far more generously verbally.
By my teens, many times while I visited friends’ homes the parents would toss out “I love you” or “I’m such a lucky mom to have a child like you!” remarks as if they were common. I would return home and resent our emotionally-constrained dialog. With some thought, I determined hugs and “I love you” comments belonged, at very least, in all departures and arrivals among parents and children within nuclear families.
Steeled for rejection, I created a plan during my senior year of high school and launched my pebble of an effort into the family pond. When departing for a picnic with friends, I walked up to my dad, put my arms around his very-stiff frame, and said “I love you, dad.” I walked up to mom, did the same, and she, too, retained the posture of a mature tree, unyielding. I’m guessing they wondered if I was up to something, but they didn’t say anything. I kept doing it, every day, every time I left or returned. A trip to the market, off to school, on an adventure, out for a babysitting job. A hug and I-love-you.
It took weeks before they quit standing stiffly and seemed to adjust to my new quirk. It took more weeks before they sometimes patted my back once or twice during a hug. It took even longer – months – until I noticed my parents had started hugging my younger brothers. They were quick-hugs, never lingering, with a rapid back-pat or two. If they said anything, I didn’t hear it, but I hope they did.
Those were the parents I knew, the ones who didn’t have enough, the mom who hated to cook so encouraged me to take over the kitchen at a very young age, the dad who staggered home late at night and shared bar jokes before he passed out. My sister, though, grew up with the aging, sober, always-home parents who kept their bins of medication in the dining room cupboard along with a hand-written medication schedule. Those parents had some financial stability and both my sister’s arrival and some health challenges seemed to help awaken them to a different way to live.
They hugged and offered periodic affectionate feedback. They didn’t punish errors. My sister describes them as both “tired” and “very loving.” To her, our mom, in particular, was sweet, generous, liked to hug, and a mom who often said “I love you.”
I’m grateful for the realization. When I married and left home, my baby sister was not yet one year old. Until the morning I wrote this, it never occurred to me that my rebellious ripple – taking hugs and sharing I-love-you’s – would impact others. Yet my sister views our parents much differently than I do, and we did experience quite different lives. Her parents had more emotional and mental bandwidth available to offer affection.
While I missed those hugs and encouragement from my parents, the story I now tell myself is that one good thing I did, fortuitously at the right time for them to pause to notice, would be providing my parents an example of how to behave more lovingly, to accept and eventually distribute hugs, to lose their fear of offering words like “I love you.”
It boomeranged back to me, of course.
My last words during what turned out to be my final conversation with my dad before he died were “I love you, dad.” His last words to me were “Who would have thought someone in this family would finish college and graduate school?! I love you, Punk.” With my mom, the last chat was all about love. I imagine how differently that might have gone if I had been a hold-out instead of taking action…
Even when we don’t know if it will matter, small loving actions do.
May you be healthy, happy, safe, strong, and courageous. May you be the brave soul who tosses the small pebble of loving attention, creating a ripple that helps others to grow.
Copyright 2021 D de Luis