I still remember my father’s wonderful rib-cage-crushing hugs. Slow squeezes that started easy and just kept snuggling down. Oh, how I miss them. He knew how to make sure I knew how much I was loved and cherished, all in a single hug.
A hug is like a boomerang – you get it back right away.Bill Keane
It Wasn’t Always Easy
My history with hugs is mixed.
I grew up in a family that wasn’t demonstrative. Well, except for my father; when I was young, he’d offer hugs regularly. It was simply his nature. I remember as a five year old him lifting me to rub his five o’clock shadow against my cheek when he got home from work, me laughing until I squealed, him twirling me in a quick dance with my feet spinning out before setting me down, dizzy and laughing. I also fondly remember him teasingly tying square knots in my long hair when I was a preteen, sitting behind me as I watched TV, smiling when I’d pretend to complain, a hug without actually hugging.
As a young girl, I spent hours basking in my father’s glow, hanging with him while he built things in his shop, learning how various tools worked, or “helping” him change the oil on the car by fetching tools and rags, talking about anything and everything or simply being together in silence. Those times were like receiving invisible hugs.
A hug is a wonderful thing. It’s a marvelous gift to share. It’s a grand way to say, “I care.” A hug communicates support, security, affection, unity, and belonging. A hug shows compassion. A hug brings delight. A hug charms the senses. A hug touches the soul.Unknown
I don’t remember hugs from my mother as a child. If she touched me, it was all business: brushing my hair, making sure I was clean, dressed appropriately, behaving. But no real affection, warmth, or hugs. I know now that she was a narcissist, of the ignoring variety. As a child, I thought such behavior was normal. I’m sure it didn’t help matters that I was totally uninterested in her domain: the kitchen.
Taking our cues primarily from our mother, my three older brothers and I never hugged or kissed each other. We were fond of each other, we roughhoused and teased, but offered no outward displays of affection. The older I got the rarer my father’s displays of affection became. I don’t know why.
My parents separated when I was seventeen. My father moved out. Soon thereafter, something interesting happened: my father starting hugging again, me and my brothers, every time he saw us. It was awkward at first because we’d gone so long without hugs, but I quickly realized how much I missed those warm, big, squeezing hugs, and I looked forward to them every time I saw him. I squeezed back. It felt so good. I loved feeling cherished.
Yet it was someone I hardly knew who taught me the intrinsic strength and value of a hug, even one offered by a stranger.
It was the late 1980s. I was about 30 and had been on my own for a few years. I was dating Ron (who I met through a personals ad and wrote about here), and he, I and some friends drove from Seattle to Boise to meet up with a group we would kayak the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with for the next several days. The long drive was stressful – Ron had road rage in those days – which exacerbated the stress I already felt about the river trip ahead. I was new to whitewater kayaking. The Middle Fork is a challenging river at we were running it early, when the water levels were high and fast from snow melt. I knew I was in over my head, and I was scared.
We made it to Boise in one piece. I was introduced to our hosts and the others arriving from other nearby states. As an introvert, being around lots of new people is always stressful, and that added another layer to the stress I already felt.
After dinner it was decided we’d all play bridge. Two tables. Ron and several of these friends had played the card game in college.
My heart sank.
You see, my mother the narcissist loved playing bridge. She lived for her various bridge clubs. She belonged to several, so by the time I was in junior high, several days each week were devoted to playing bridge. Too many times to count I came home from school to find her and whichever bridge club she was hosting tipsy on bloody Mary’s, bowls of candy and peanuts decimated. I grew to loathe the game. I swore I would never learn to play, despite enjoying other card games like Spades, War, Hearts and Canasta.
The Boise group insisted I play. I protested I didn’t know how. They assured me I could learn. The pressure was intense and I didn’t know how to politely say no.
I tried. But bridge had such negative emotional history for me, and I was already so stressed. I failed miserably as they patiently explained the intricate rules. Eventually – after feeling like the stupidest person on the planet because I wasn’t getting how to play – I begged off and went to bed.
Ron and I were assigned the garage as our sleeping area. This garage was spotless, every tool neatly in its place on the walls, the concrete floor clean enough to eat off of. I dove into my sleeping bag and tried to ignore the shame I felt for not being able to grasp the game of bridge. I was also fretting about the upcoming river trip, whether I was capable. I didn’t sleep much.
The next morning, I awoke with a horribly swollen face and nasal congestion. Clearly I’d had a severe allergic reaction to something in the garage. I’d rarely felt more miserable.
As I trudged from the garage into the house to find the bathroom, I was met in a hallway by Hillary, owner of the house along with husband Bob.
She took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong?”
To this day I don’t know if she meant just my appearance, or intuited something deeper, but my response assumed the latter. I looked at her concerned face and tears started leaking from my eyes.
Wordlessly, Hillary opened her arms to me and I melted into her hug.
Hillary (may she rest in peace) was a pillowy woman, all soft, generous curves. In those moments that she enveloped me in her hug, I felt loved, understood, and valued. She felt so…motherly. I instantly felt better. I didn’t need to explain a thing. She understood.
I also realized that I couldn’t remember ever feeling such comfort from my own mother.
As we all drove to the river put in later that day, I reflected on how Hillary’s hug felt, how much it helped me in that moment. I vowed on that day to become a hugger, to offer, when I could, the same degree of warmth and comfort to others that Hillary had given me. I learned how incredibly powerful a healing hug could be to one in need.
I hope I’ve lived up to that vow. I’m a committed hugger.
One day someone is going to hug you so tight that all all of your broken pieces will stick together.Unknown
I admit to being a bit of a hug and touch snob. I’m keenly aware of the huggers and non-huggers in my life, of those who touch (appropriately) and those who don’t. I admit, when I’m connecting with someone in a conversation, I might reach out and touch their hand or sleeve. It’s my way of saying, “I hear you. I understand you.” I appreciate when others do the same for me.
I pay attention to the feel of the hugs I receive. Are they warm? Genuine? The ability to hug, or not, says a lot about someone, just like a handshake. I get that some people have personal space/boundary issues, and don’t like being hugged, especially by strangers, but I also know that their aversion speaks to deeper issues.
I’m drawn to those who openly hug and show affection in socially appropriate ways.
I don’t like weak hugs, those “Oh, okay, I guess I’m supposed to, but I don’t really like to” encounters, with virtually no squeezing pressure, maybe a pat or two on the back before breaking away. Those hugs have the same warmth as a fake smile. Why bother?
Awkward hugs? Totally fine! They only get better with practice. Having hung out with so many male engineers over my lifetime, I know awkward hugs. It’s a point of personal pride that I’ve turned several engineer friends into huggers, real huggers, simply by being persistent.
As for the groper-huggers out there, I’ve found they’re few and far between, and in the rare instance I’ve felt uncomfortable receiving such a hug, I break contact immediately. No rewards for those creeps, only shame. I won’t let them ruin all the good hugs for me.
I’ll never get another hug like my father’s amazing snug hugs, because only he could deliver one. But I’m ever optimistic that someday I’ll find someone whose hugs come a close second. In the meantime, I’ve always got my dogs’ unconditional love and adoration.
The idea for this post about hugs was prompted by a response to a recent piece I posted that exposed a deeply personal hidden disability I live with. A reader commented and sent “hugs and love….” I responded in part with, Thank you for the hugs. They’re always needed, appreciated and welcomed. Especially because it’s ten years since I lost my father, and living alone now for so many years, I don’t get a lot of hugs these days. I know many may think that “sending hugs” or “xxoo” via email or social media is meaningless, but I’m here to tell you that’s not true. I can’t feel those hugs, but they offer me a sense of warmth and let me know that if I ever met that person someday, we’ll greet with a hug because they’re a hugging person. And that’s worth knowing.
Girdles and wire stays should have never been invented. No man wants to hug a padded bird cage.Marilyn Monroe
Give a Hug, Get a Hug
Here’s what I’ve learned about hugs: Don’t be shy. Get over any sense of awkwardness. Freely give and receive hugs, to those you know as well as new acquaintances. The rewards are worth any initial anxiety. Practice makes perfect.
We humans are hard-wired for touch as comfort. Hugs reduce stress, show support. They boost emotional and physical health, reduce fear, pain and help us communicate.
Be a hugger.