It was a June Cleaver-Donna Reed morning. Breakfast was eaten around the table with my father and mother. My older siblings had already left for school. Pink grapefruit coated with sugar lingers on my mind and tongue. I’d just swapped the grapefruit for a bowl of Frosted Flakes when my father reentered the kitchen to make his formal exit.
Like June and Donna, my mother rushed to the door to say good-bye. From my seat at the table I had a clear view of my parents in the backdoor entryway— arms circling each other, heads tipped in opposite directions, lips meshed. This kiss was not a peck. It was an embrace straight out of the black-and-white films my five-year-old self was already hooked on thanks to Shirley Temple.
We were not a demonstrative family. My parents didn’t believe in telling their children they were loved; that was something children should just know— none of us ever did. The juxtaposition of what my parents believed against this demonstration of intimacy mesmerized me. My heart danced.
When they parted, my father’s icy eyes drilled into me as he spoke. “Don’t let me catch you watching anyone kiss ever again.”
My gaze snapped back to my cereal bowl where the flakes had expanded and mushed into the milk. My mother said nothing and returned to her housecleaning duties as soon as he was out the door. I can’t recall finishing my cereal, but I must have. Wasting food wasn’t an option with all the starving children in the world.
What lingers like the sugary grapefruit is the emptiness and sense of isolation that led me to believe I didn’t deserve love, or any kind of praise. This misbelief was reinforced whenever my father signed my report card.
“Why did you get the B?” The B punctuated with the disdain of an F.
Like his theory on love, he expected me to know he was pleased or proud. I never did. I knew kids whose parents berated and punished them whenever they messed up, but took them out for ice cream for a job well done. I was simply iced out.
For years any kind of intimacy made me uncomfortable. Whenever a couple walked towards me, even if they were younger than me and only holding hands, my embarrassment would send me across the street. Still, I had my share of crushes and flirted with the boys who returned my interest. But my encouragement went into lockdown when touch was introduced.
This was particularly bothersome for my boyfriend in high school, where it was normal operating procedure to interlock hands with your beau between periods. In today’s world, I imagine my refusal to hold hands might lead him to wonder if I was gay, or fear I might sound the alarm for inappropriate behavior if he dared to compliment my looks. In the 1970s he was just sad and hurt. I recognized his pain, but was too frightened of my father to take any sexual liberties. So, I rattled on like some character from the black-and-white movies I coveted.
“I’ve never liked any boy as much as you. But don’t you see? If I was really crazy about you, in love with you, I’d never be able to pull my hand away.”
It was bullshit, of course, because even though I’d learned genuine human connection wasn’t what I deserved, I longed for it and eventually rebelled.
In college, sex was one of my majors. I loved making out in bars to see how many sorority girls I could embarrass. The positive and negative responses it evoked energized me and allowed me to experience a kind of power impossible under my father’s authoritarian rule. I thrived on the attention, actively sought it out, but intimacy wasn’t permitted.
Eighteen months after graduation, I was pregnant. I was drawn to my son’s father because he was the antithesis of my own, and yet, like my father, he was incapable of dealing with deep emotions. Our shared lack of intimacy was familiar and safe, and so, I stayed with him much longer than I expected.
But the influx of hormones and the accompanying mood swings of that pregnancy exposed the ugliness of my ex’s insensitivity, and my longing for intimacy returned— true intimacy, not the kind displayed in movies. I found it with my son. His presence allowed me to grieve for what had been taken from me in childhood. I hugged and reassured him daily.
“However you need to express yourself, whether it’s laughter, tears or yelling, is okay with me. I’ll always listen, support and love you— no matter what.”
With each hug my emptiness lessened.
This process of sharing deepened with the birth of his two brothers. To this day, we are a hugging-loving bunch. We share everything— no subjects or feelings are off limits.
Our conversations would make June Cleaver and Donna Reed blush, but I’d rather err on the side of too much information than too little— there is enough fear in the world. I can’t think of a better way to stamp out personal and global fear than showing our children how simple it is to spread the nurturing and empowering gift of love.