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Arm in Arm

Throughout my teens and early twenties, my mother cut my fingernails for me. When I came home on vacation from boarding school or college we sat together on a wooden chest in her bedroom, looking out over Long Island Sound. Outside, the gulls cried and small waves pushed through the eel grass. Mom’s leisurely pace gave us time to talk. She trimmed my nails with a pair of rounded scissors, then smoothed them with an emery board as she asked about my friends, my classes, my distant life at school.

I never initiated those encounters, nor mentioned them to anyone. But I liked having my mother fuss over me. Now that touching each other had become so difficult, that small ritual was our last excuse to hold hands.

My own son, Janir, turned 25 last fall. He’s an energetic and independent young man, perfectly beautiful to me, and whenever I see him–perhaps four or five times a year–we hug each other freely. We wrap our arms around each other and hold our faces close. But after that first greeting I think we both hold back. American men do not commonly embrace or walk arm in arm. They rarely even stand shoulder to shoulder, close enough to touch. The constraints are subtle but pervasive, and now that my son is an adult I think neither one of us gets to hold onto the other as much as we’d like.

I raised Janir on my own, starting when he was two, after his mother’s eccentric behavior turned dangerous. Clarisa was an adult-onset schizophrenic, and her emotional drift out of the marriage threw my son and me together. As a young boy he was quick to drape himself around my neck, quick to poke his toes in my face so I’d play with them. He liked those in-and-out-of-my-arms games, in which I tossed him into a pile of leaves or onto the couch, over and over. He climbed on my back, he played with my ears, he leapt through the air and made me catch him. His bedtime each night was a long session of songs and stories as he lay with his head next to mine.

Most young children are the same: if you let them they’ll crawl all over you. And when they grow older, it’s often their parents who pull back. Shere Hite, in her recent book, The Hite Report on The Family, claims that most children go for ten years without significant body contact. “When you think about it,” she writes, “children are almost completely physically cut off from others between the age of five and fifteen.

I grew up like that myself. My New England family was solid and supportive and respectful of children–but in my memory no one in the household was hugging anyone else. I never thought of this as strange, because my friends were all growing up the same way.

Much had changed by the time I started raising Janir on my own. Embraces were flowing freely in the counterculture of the early seventies, and Clarisa, before the start of her schizophrenia, had been a fond and physically devoted mother who believed in letting Janir decide for himself when to eat, when to be picked up, when and where to sleep. Following her lead, I let my son choose the level of intimacy between us–which was how we came to spend so much time face to face and body to body.

That has an ominous ring these days. But children will let you know when they want to be left alone. That happened rarely when Janir was young, more commonly when he was twelve or fourteen, when he didn’t want me to put my arm around his shoulders after a soccer game or at the movies. Yet even then home remained our sanctuary, and well into high school we continued our snug bedtime readings. Tolkien and Roald Dahl gave way to the Hornblower series from C.S. Forester, to Roger Angell on baseball, to Maya Angelou’s memoirs and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If we hadn’t had the chance all day, this was our time to stretch out side by side and feel each other breathe.

I was lucky with my son, for many parents never get to touch their teenagers at all. The two of us wrestled, we bumped chests like pro football players, Janir “administered the hit” by tackling me and flinging me onto my bed. There, after a short tussle, we often wound up resting arm in arm, perhaps talking about his friends and classes.

Then one September he went off to college. Instead of seeing him every day I saw him every month, or every other. It took me by surprise, how much I missed him.

Now that he’s working and often on the move, we get together at my brother’s in Vermont, or at my dad’s on Cape Cod. There we find ways to get close. We still wrestle–though Janir is now strong as a fullback and has little trouble pushing me around. Sometimes we cuff each other in the face, laughing and feinting, landing slaps and pats. And there is television, whose highest purpose has always been to let us slump beside each other on the rug in front of the set, shoulder to shoulder, often head to head.

Occasionally, when we’re alone, Janir still plays with my ears. His hand slides up, takes hold of an ear and wanders over it with his fingertips. First one ear, then the other. I think we both pretend it’s an unconscious act. But I feel in this gesture our long physical history, those years when we lived in constant touch.

When Clarisa went crazy I was angry and scared. I didn’t want to raise a child on my own. Yet in some ways the affectionate life Janir and I have shared has been her gift to us. From his early childhood on, nothing has been more important to us than getting into each other’s arms.

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