Stepping off the plane in Hawaii gave me a sense of belonging. I watched as arriving passengers were welcomed with leis and a kiss on the cheek from loved ones. During my two years on Oahu, I started to learn how to become comfortable with showing affection.
Growing up in Maine, family values were strong. In my immediate family, however, hugs and kisses were not plentiful, and “I love yous” were infrequent. Certainly those words were written in birthday cards, or voiced when I skinned my knee as a child. Other than that, though, I just assumed that since my mom stayed home with my brother and me, and my dad didn’t miss a basketball game, they loved me. I took their interest in my interests as love.
It all seemed normal until I got older, and I somehow fell in love with pretty much every guy I dated. At least that’s what I told them. In hindsight, I was just waiting to hear those words in return. I yearned for embrace, wondering if it would somehow validate me more.
Of course not. But it took me a long time (several flings, serious relationships, a wedding, a divorce and parenthood) to figure that out.
Although I wanted intimacy, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Affection wasn’t something I was familiar with. So there were times when I would physically shy away from expressing the way I felt. Other times I came on too strong. I couldn’t seem to find a balance.
I remember while living in Hawaii, I hugged my neighbor, who also happened to be my best friend, on her birthday. She sort of froze and I asked why. “Well, you’ve never hugged me before,” she responded. “I didn’t think that was our thing.”
But it was a holiday, I thought to myself. It’s ingrained in my blood to hug and celebrate on this one day. Also, the “Aloha Spirit” was rubbing off on me. In Hawaii a hug and kiss on the cheek is customary in every greeting between man, woman and child. Eventually, I caught on. I never thought, in my late 20s, that I’d have to teach myself to be comfortable with affection. In my heart, I wanted to express my emotions by wrapping my arms around friends, family and lovers just because, but I never let myself do it until I lived in Hawaii and then, especially, when I became a mother.
After becoming a parent, I always wanted to hug my daughter, to hold her, to kiss her. So I did. In turn, she is always hugging her classmates when she arrives at school. She pulls her family members in close when saying goodbye. And sometimes she’ll grab my hand or climb up next to me and rest her head on my shoulder, just because she can.
Recently when she came home from school, she hugged my father, who was in the driveway when she got out of the car. When she let go she looked at me and looked at him and said “Okay, your turn,” motioning for the two of us to mimic her expression of love. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I’d mastered the art of affection with everyone except my parents.
At 32, I stood in the yard of the house I grew up in. My 6-year-old daughter looked at me reassuringly as if to say: “You’ve taught me. Now I’m teaching you.” Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed my dad also understood her subtle, sweet reminder. Before I could move, my dad reached out and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, whispering “I love you.”