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


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