I can remember receiving only one hug from my mother in childhood and adolescence. She’s not big on physical displays of affection. She’s not big on verbal displays of affection, either. I didn’t know I was loved as a child. No – to say that, I would need to have had an expectation of love. But I didn’t know that I should expect to be loved, so I didn’t know to wonder whether or not my parents loved me.
My father did hug me fairly often. It was under precise circumstances – when he was feeling down and needed comfort. He never hugged the boys. The closest he came to showing physical affection to my brothers was holding their faces in his hands and crying and apologizing for hitting or kicking them earlier, while the boys stood stiffly, expressionless, waiting for Totty’s ritual of self-absolution to be over.
But Totty hugged the girls. Not my older sister, who made it clear early on that she would not stand for his hugs. But me – he hugged me, and I hugged him back – most of the time. The few times that I stiffened and said “not now,” he drew back, hurt, and said – seriously – “I can’t even get a hug from you? You care so little about me?” It never occurred to him to hug me when I was down – then he yelled at me for upsetting everyone else with my “ungeblusen” face.
But Mommy – the one time she hugged me, that was for me.
It was after Sophie Shabbos. The whole tenth grade had spent a shabbos together. We ate the Friday night seudah at a classmate’s home, and we slept in another classmate’s home. Shabbos day was spent in the school building, with singing and dancing and eating and fun. When shabbos was over, all the girls changed into costumes and the night was filled with performances.
I felt hollow all shabbos long. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I did not know why, but I felt – bad. I joined in the fun, and from the photos I have from that motzaei shabbos, I can’t tell that I felt anything other than adolescent joy.
When I got home late on motzaei shabbos, I sat down on the couch, pulled a cushion onto my lap, bent over, and sobbed so hard I thought my throat was being shredded.
My mother came downstairs – everyone else was in bed already – and asked me what’s wrong. She sat next to me on the couch, with her hands in her lap. Tears still streaming down my face, my face wet and my voice clogged, I sobbed into the cushion, “I don’t know! Everything is just – falling!”
And that’s when Mommy put her hand on my shoulder, and I half-turned, still leaning forward, to end up with my snotty face pressed against her shoulder, and she put her arms around me and rocked me and said “oy, shefela, oy, shefela.”
I remember thinking, even in that moment when I was overcome with inexplicable despair, how odd it was to feel her soft skin and to hear her heart beating beneath my ear.