Hugs

Snug Hugs

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.

people hugging
Getting one of those wonderful hugs from my father on Father’s Day, 2000.

Soothing Hugs

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

Sharing Hugs

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.

people, airplane
Affection and connection can be shown in ways other than a hug, as my father demonstrated to me on this day in 1977 after a successful first flight of his restored 1926 biplane.

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.

two dogs
Dogs are masters at snuggling, their version of hugging.

Cyber Hugs

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.

12 thoughts on “Hugs”

  1. I love this piece! A hug has immense power. My 16 year marriage gives most of the credit to one single hug. I met my wife, Michelle, online in a chatroom back when people still did that. I also met a few other friends in the chatroom who were all coming out to California to meet in real life. Michelle was the last to arrive and we were picking her up from the airport. At this time we were just friends but had been chatting for around a year. When she got off the plane and met us she stretched out her hand. I said, “No way. We already know each other. We hug.” Then I gave her that hug. She still says today that one hug made more of an impression on her than anything.

    **Hugz** to you in remembrance of your father. I feel like I kind of know him from reading about him in your book. Today is the 17th anniversary of Michelle’s father’s death. I never got to meet him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This brought a tear to my eyes (well, those tears had friends) when I read it. And yes, there is a nourishing quality to a hug. I thought back a few years to when we lost my cousin to a heart attack, much too young. I wrote about him, and those great hugs he would give. I can’t think of him without thinking about those hugs.

    To you, to your father and to the beauty of a good hug.

    Hugs and love

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Um, I’m not with you on this one Rebecca. Forcing someone to hug isn’t any different from forcing someone to play bridge or kayak a too difficult river. To borrow a commonly used phrase, no means no. So many people have traumatic experiences associated with touch, and while they should ‘work’ on them, that kind of work is difficult, takes time and is often prioritized behind other issues. I’m a side hugger. Anything more feels like an invasion of my privacy. My two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t advocate forced hugging, Jeff. No does indeed mean no. I would never force someone to accept a hug. Body language indicating “no thanks” with regard to a potential hug is pretty clear. As I wrote, “I’m keenly aware of the huggers and non-huggers in my life, of those who touch (appropriately) and those who don’t.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hugs can be great. Last September at the San Luis Valley Potato Festival, I saw the kids and their mom for the first time outside their yard. The yard is good. It’s fenced which means the kids can love the dogs safe from their crazed exuberance. But the fence also means humans can’t fully express their feelings. I love those kids and their mom. So there we were in the park, saw each other and spun into a four-way hug. It was a great hug. 🙂

    I recently got a letter from a “man” with whom I had a complicated non-relationship for many years. I finally asked him not to contact me any more. So after six years, he did, fucker. ANYhoo we used to hug, instigated by him. In the letter he said that those hugs made him feel nervous and frightened, like he was holding something that was “viscerally alive.” After that, he said he hoped we would no longer be “estranged.” Right.

    Oh as for my narcissistic mom, I could hug her and she would say, “You’re not fooling me” or some equally fucked up hug-negating statement. shudder.

    Hugs can be complicated. If I sense they’re complicated for someone, I don’t. But my dogs? Absolutely whenever possible. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s my belief, too, Fred. We can change and improve, learn from and be better than some of the role models we had, whether its with regard to parenting of just being a good human being.
      Sorry your own childhood didn’t include loving hugs, but happy to learn you modeled something better for your own kids.

      Liked by 1 person

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