Four sisters from a family that wasn't big on hugging figure out how to ask for—and give—the comfort they longed for as kids.
After our mother died, my three younger sisters and I began what would become a tradition, an annual get-together, just the four of us—no spouses, no kids, no heavy dates. It would be a chance, although no one ever came out and said as much, to talk about what had happened. Talk we did, haltingly, spiking the conversation with the edgy jokes that are our family vernacular. But the conversation was less important that the gathering itself, this warm huddle of bodies that had known one another their entire lives. Eventually, our reunions became less of an observance and more of an adventure. We started taking trips, once to a dude ranch in Arizona and just recently to a spa in Vermont, where we were also celebrating my sister Susie's birthday.
It was a happy occasion and we indulged ourselves accordingly, having exotic forms of massage, hiking in the woods, and eating our favorite candy. In real life, we were all middle-aged women; here we were just, well, sisters. Laughing, goofing on waiters, dishing old friends, until the conversation turned, inevitably, to each of our unhappy adolescences. I was telling my sisters about a time—I must have been around 20, living at home between reckless bouts of the sixties—when I was freaking out over something. What? I have no clear recollection except that of being lost.
I do remember trailing my mother into the bathroom and sitting on the toilet seat to watch her as she put on her lipstick with her little collapsible brush, preparing to go out for the evening. I felt about 4 years old. And I remember wishing—the voice so loud in my head I was sure she could hear it—that she would come over and put her arms around me. I didn't say anything. Our family was not expressive in that way. And at that particular moment, I either didn't think my mother would understand or I didn't want to tell her what was wrong. I wanted something words could not express. I just wanted a hug.
"Oh my God," said Susie. "That's just what Robin said to me." Robin, her daughter, was now about the age I had been back then and had been fighting her own demons—until somehow she seemed to right herself, like a small skiff in a big sea. "She said that when she was in trouble, what she really needed was for me to give her a hug," Susie said. "And I had no idea."
"Well," I said. "At least you know now."
Next: The meaning behind a hug
There was more to say. About missed opportunities and our strange broken legacy. But instead we ate some more strawberry Twizzlers and started a hilarious pantomime, a sign language for freaking out—fingers clenched as if holding onto a cliff, the fewer the fingers, the more severe the freak-out; and a sign—arms encircled, then a little wave—that meant, I'm sending you a hug.
During the 8,000 years I spend in therapy learning to express the feelings that were forbidden in my family, there were days when I sat on the couch, shredding Kleenex while my therapist looked at me with compassion, and I wished I could crawl into her lap. At times like these, it struck me that psychotherapy was too much work and too little comfort. Being able to name my most primitive feelings seemed a gratingly cerebral approach to what were almost physical sensations. Words, no matter how well-intentioned, bounced off me like hail.
None of which is to say that I harbor many illusions that a hug could have changed my life. Or anyone's. (I grew up near a large Italian clan to whose house I would flee when I craved the noise and heat of another kind of family, where the mother, a former masseuse, was a hugger without peer. They all turned out to be as crazy as bedbugs.) But in the moment, I have no doubt, a hug can ground you. Pull you back from the edge. Or our of your head. Into a circle of arms and the sturdy comforts of the present.
"Language is a skin," wrote Roland Barthes in A Lover's Discourse. And so is skin a language. It speaks when words fail us and communicates to parts of ourselves that are beyond the reach of words. The simple fact is that we are, first and foremost, mammals. We thrive on touch. Grooming is part of our social behavior, which may explain the relationship we have with our hairdressers. (A friend once asked her shrink, "Is it a love problem or a hair problem?" "I think it's a hair problem," he said.)
And while I am easily put off by indiscriminate hugging—the New Age promiscuity that robs gestures of their power—still, I can be moved to tears watching baseball, when the batter rounds third, race down the baseline, and the entire dugout charges out to embrace him. Granted, it's an occasion of triumph, not tragedy. But the message is the same. You're one of us! it says. You're home.