by Secret Hippie
How I Discovered Affection
We were raised in houses with no hugging. Other families did it, too, a widespread group of us in our time and place invested in a stoic or puritan sort of tradition.
Past infancy, we received no contact except for moral correction. Episodes of discipline usually consisted of a slap or a spank to discourage toddlers from playing with wall sockets or ripping up books. Some parents in the neighborhood were physically tougher than others. Some were tight-lipped and bestowed no praise.
Once, when I was about five years old, I locked myself in a closet and cried for a while, about half an hour. My mother came looking for me but I couldn't stop crying. A few days earlier, I had been spanked for crying without a reason. I was crying without a reason at that moment, so that may have been why I didn't want to come out even though I heard her calling.
She found me anyway, eventually.
"What's wrong?" she asked. Then, patiently, she waited a few minutes for my body to calm down so I could talk.
When I finally answered, I was aware that I had my mothers attention. What with her job, her second child, husband, and extended family, having her full focus was an unusual thing. I didn’t want to tell her that I was crying because life is pointless and I hated myself. Instead, I deflected her line of questioning.
“Mom, how come no one ever says they love me? How come you don’t say it to dad? How come he doesn’t say it to you?" The questions poured forth while she gave me a stern look. "Other kids' parents say it.”
Her expression softened.
“I don’t like those words," she said after a moment in thought. "I don’t trust them. People say them but they don’t really mean them. Don’t expect me to say that I love you. I do, but I'm not going to say it. You'll know because I'll show it.”
She talked to me like I was almost an adult. She put a hand on my shoulder as I considered her words. To me, the idea of showing love being better than saying it was a new concept.
"Show me how?"
“Well, you have to look. That's how you know love is real. Not because of what someone says. Watch how they act. That’s how you know. If someone loves you, they'll look at you a certain way. They'll do nice things for you. You'll know."
Two years later, she ran into a student at her school who was lonely, a foreigner without many friends in Maryland. His name was Vit Babushka. She asked if she could bring him over to play with me.
"He's got a funny name," I thought aloud.
"His family is from Czechoslovakia." She and my father exchanged looks. They launched into a brief discussion about war and politics. Czechoslovakia had been invaded by the Russians. Vit's father, a scientist, had participated in an academic movement in Belgrade. When the Soviet troops arrived, he had been forced to flee.
The details were beyond my understanding at the time but Vit's family had left their home and made it to the United States, eventually, with help from the American government. Fortunately, America had a fairly high demand for physics professors, especially ones breaking ground in lightwave experiments. Vit's father was able to land a job as a professor at the University of Maryland.
For me, though, my focus was on the new kid. I had entertained a few of them before, thanks to my parents, but not one who didn't speak English. Apparently, he didn't know many words or he was shy, maybe both.
"Does he like baseball? Tennis?" Any kind of game was fun. In a lot of them, you didn't need to speak.
"I don't think he knows much about baseball, yet." My mother had known I would ask because I tried to organize pick-up baseball games every afternoon. She shook her head. "You'll have to ask him what he likes to play."
One day that week, she brought Vit home after school. He was a tall boy, my age but thinner. He moved slower than I did but with grace in his body. His hair was lighter than mine. His teeth, when he smiled, showed a mix of sizes due to how his childish incisors and canines were falling out to get replaced by permanent ones.
"The ball is very hard," he said when he first caught a baseball that I tossed to him underhand. I could tell he didn't like it. "It did not look so hard before."
Amazingly, he was a boy who didn't know how to play baseball. My parents had warned me. Still, it knocked me back a little, mentally. Absolutely everyone played baseball. For a while, I tried to teach him how to throw and how to swing. I hit him grounders. One popped up from a pebble and caught him in the shoulder. He grunted.
"Do you know football?" he asked. When I pointed to the football I'd brought, he shook his head. "Not like that. Round. You kick it?"
"A kickball? Red?"
"White, I think. Or white with black spots?"
"Soccer. That's soccer." We went and dug a soccer ball out of my basement but we struggled to keep it inflated. I had never really played soccer. Given the state of the cheap ball I owned, we both lost enthusiasm.
"I have three tennis rackets," I volunteered, although one belonged to my younger brother.
"You know tennis?" Vit asked. All around the world, tennis was the hottest sport. Rod Laver had brought glamour and fame to it but his career had started to fade. Arthur Ashe and a host of international stars were rising; they were generating interest across the globe. Likewise, Margaret Court was still the greatest of her era but Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, and others were rising to compete with her.
"I had lessons," I answered. At the recreation center, I had gotten at least one lesson in everything. "Sometimes I hit against that wall in the park."
"This sport, I want to learn."
We fetched the rackets, the only can of balls, and headed back to the park. We spent a long time on tennis, hitting balls against a wall. Vit got decent pretty quickly. Even so, we got tired of it, set our rackets down, and played on the playground and in the creek. We found ourselves just talking for a while.
After a couple of hours, I heard my mother calling. We grabbed the stuff and headed home.
"Does he have to go?" It hadn't taken long for me to know that Vit was pretty great. I liked him a lot. "Can't he stay tonight?"
"No. His parents want to see him." She gave me a wry smile. Later, after she put him in her car, she asked me, "Do you like him enough to play with him again?"
"Sure. I'd play with him any day." I meant every day, actually. Vit's quiet, accented way of talking let his wit shine. I knew that he was smart and funny. "When can we see him next?"
“I don’t know. But since you two had so much fun, I’ll find a way. I’ll work something out.“
It wasn't long before we had another play date, then another. One day, my mother announced that this time, I was going to travel to Vit's house.
"You don't mind, do you?"
"He says he wants to play chess." I shrugged. "But he has other games, too."
When I arrived at the house, Vit rushed through the door and onto the front walk to greet me. He gave me a hug, which seemed weird, but after all he was foreign and didn't know better. He thanked my mother politely, which made her smile, and waved as she drove off.
"Now, you meet everybody," Vit said. He walked me up to his front door. "We have a tradition. First, I hug you at the door. Then next."
The door opened. My eyes went wide in surprise. What had been revealed was a line of people. Vit's father, who had opened the door, turned away immediately and headed to the back of the line.
Vit turned in the doorway and clasped me by the shoulders again. This time, I didn't return the gesture. I was too stunned. All of this friendly touching seemed overwhelming. Anyway, he seemed to put an angel in the next spot.
"This is my sister," he said. He bowed slightly.
"Oh, he looks adorable," she murmured. But I barely heard her. She was tall, almost like an adult. She crouched down to me. Her accent was heavy and her voice was so soft that I didn't completely understand her words. None of that mattered. She could have cursed at me softly in her slavic tongue and I would have heard a heavenly host singing a chorus behind her. When she hugged me it was like floating in a sea of blonde hair, honey, and flowers. Then she stood and said something in another language and followed it with, "Welcome."
She stepped to the side. Her mother stepped up. To my shock, she hugged me, too. It was getting to be too much. She smelled different. Her dress was rougher, a little cheaper. She laughed as I squirmed. Then I relaxed.
Again, she said something in another language. She stood and said, "I am glad to meet you. You are welcome."
When she stepped aside, Vit's father shuffled forward. He seemed like a giant of a man but he had lost the honor of seniority during a whispered argument with his mother, apparently. The older woman had pushed him forward.
"Vit says you are a smart boy and nice," he told me. His accent was thick but his words were clear. It seemed apparent that he spoke English every day at work, unlike his wife or his mother.
"T-Thank you," I stuttered, not knowing what else to say. I looked to Vit for help. He tried to encourage me with a nod and a smile.
"We must seem very strange to you," Vit's father continued. He bent and gave me a quick hug, as if he knew how awkward this all seemed. He was right in that I couldn’t ever remember being held like this, not by another boy or girl, not by a grownup, nobody. At that point, I hadn’t hugged a dog. The big man smelled like foreign cologne. Fortunately, he backed up. "It is our tradition to welcome you." He spoke a few words in another language and said, in English, "You are welcome."
Finally, Vit's grandmother stepped forward.
"She doesn't speak English," Vit blurted. His sister, mother, and father all uttered English and slavic phrases in agreement.
"It is fine," said Vit's father. "Just step forward and let her welcome you."
Her hair was so grey that really it was white. Her expression seemed solemn except for her eyes, which twinkled with a sort of humor that reminded me immediately of Vit and his sister. Those eyes took an amused view of the world.
When she lowered herself for the embrace, her dress felt rough but her body, soft. I was getting adjusted to this weird amount of touching. The closest thing I'd had before was when the cats slept on me or when my brother had a nightmare and got into my bed along with the cats. This was different and better. Vit's grandmother smelled of spices, butter, and fresh bread, too, as if she had been baking. She had. I didn't know it but I was about to sit down to one of the best meals of my life.
The white-haired woman said a few slavic words, released me, spoke with Vit's father, grabbed me again, shook me, squeezed me and laughed, and finally let me go and stood up.
In a thick accent, after a prompt from Vir's father, she said, "Welcome."