I am normally not a demonstrably affectionate person. I once read humans need 12 hugs a day and thought TWELVE hugs a day? My God, who hugs that much besides Poppy Troll? I will hug my family and closest friends of course, but probably not the suggested 84 times a week. Beyond that, I don’t deem most relationships close enough for full frontal contact. And do not even think about leaning in with a side hug. This “not-really-a-hug” hug puts me over the edge. If our relationship isn’t close enough for you to press yourself up against my chest, we are in handshake territory. There’s nothing worse than a side hug. Either enter my space entirely or stay firmly outside it.
I have very strong feelings about this, apparently.
So does my five-year-old daughter.
Ellie has never been keen on physical contact with strangers. Even when she was only four or five months old, long before the supposed “stranger danger” phase that all older babies go through, she would wail if I tried to hand her off to a friend or distant family member. She doesn’t like to give the man who hands out the stickers at the grocery store a high-five. And forget hugging her grandparents goodbye. I’ve had to intercede in more than one farewell when a well-meaning loved one wants a hug or a kiss that is not forthcoming to gently remind, “She can choose not to give hugs and kisses. Maybe try a fist bump or a high-five instead.” Though even that low threshold is often a non-starter with Ellie.
Her brother, dad, and I have always been largely exempt from this no-contact rule. Or rather, while Ellie will rarely instigate a hug or an “I love you,” she’s always accepted ours rather willingly. Until a month ago.
I don’t remember the circumstance—I was in the kitchen, so maybe I was cooking dinner or emptying the dishwasher or making the grocery list for the week. Ellie wandered through, headed for the bonus room.
“Hey Els,” I said. She turned. “I love you.”
“Ugh, I know Mom. You say that like a hundred times an hour.”
“I do? Is that too many for you?”
“Yes! Way too many,” she said firmly. “In fact, from now on, you can only say ‘I love you’ to me on Sundays.” And with a dramatic twirl of her skirt, she left me in the kitchen, mouth slightly agape.
Encounters with the fullness of Ellie tend to leave one speechless.
Jon walked in the kitchen. “You okay?” he asked. “You look a little … stunned.
I blinked and shook my head slightly. “I’m fine. Your daughter just informed me that we can only tell her we love her on Sundays, though.”
“No, you can only tell me on Sundays,” Ellie called out, correcting me from the bonus room. “Dad’s day is Wednesdays.”
Jon gave me the rueful smile that almost always comes after game-set-match goes to our strong-willed daughter.
“At least they’re different days?” he said with a shrug.
When I was a little girl, one of my favorite places to visit was my Aunt Patti and Uncle Jeff’s 500-acre cattle farm an hour away. They lived in a bright yellow Victorian farmhouse, and when I stayed there I got to sleep in the room in the turret on the second floor. It was round with stained glass windows set high in the walls under the ceiling and felt exactly like a room from a storybook, except that I had to share it with my baby cousin, Dylan, who didn’t always sleep through the night. Storybooks don’t often include crying babies.
My aunt would pull out her vintage Barbies and let me play with them for hours without a word of caution about being gentle. But I noticed the pristine case she kept them in and the meticulous way the clothes were organized. At eight years old, I knew what special toys looked like and the care they called for. These were special to Aunt Patti; I would be careful.
My uncle, a high school English teacher turned cattle farmer, always asked me what books I was reading while we ate supper, and then made suggestions for other books or movies I might like. The summer I was working my way through The Little House on the Prairie series, I talked about how exciting the wide open frontier seemed. Uncle Jeff said he thought I’d like A River Runs Through It, so we rented it from Blockbuster and watched it over popcorn. I remember thinking Brad Pitt was very cute, putting Montana on my bucket list of states to visit, and thrilling silently that they let me stay up until 10:30 without batting an eye.
Even as I grew older and my aunt and uncle had more children of their own and my weekends with them became less frequent, they never failed to remember what was important to me. My aunt passed away two years ago this Christmas, but at our last Thanksgiving together, with forty-odd relatives spilling into every room of my parents’ home and me sitting awkwardly in the kitchen trying to engage in more small talk about Black Friday sales, she pulled out the chair next to me and said, “now, tell me all about how your writing is going. What are you working on that you’re most excited about?” She listened and asked questions and then gave me a spontaneous hug I didn’t mind one bit and said, “well, we are just so proud of you.”
Those were the last words she ever said to me.
When I was young, I couldn’t find a way to explain why I enjoyed my time at the farm so much. Sometimes it was fun and adventurous, like when my uncle drove us in his big farm truck down to the creek snaking through the property so we could swim and splash. Sometimes I felt grown up and responsible, like when my aunt would let me help out with my younger cousins. But those were just parts; the sum was harder to explain.
It’s only as an adult that I can see it—I enjoyed it because Aunt Patti and Uncle Jeff let me be myself. I didn’t see them all that often—maybe four or five times a year—and now I grimace that I would retreat and play alone for such huge chunks of time when we were together. But they didn’t just let me, they encouraged it, somehow knowing if they didn’t hover I would eventually come find them and ask to go to the creek or take a walk or watch a movie. Somehow they grasped early on where my boundaries were, but instead of testing them, they accepted them.
The thing about boundaries is, when they’re consistently honored sometimes you don’t need them.
I was tempted to laugh, roll my eyes, and joke about Ellie’s “you can only say “I love you’ on Sundays” rule, but instead I did my level best to honor it. Or rather, I did after trying to wriggle out of it.
“It’s a long time until Sunday, Els,” I said on Monday. “What if you forget I love you by then?”
“I won’t,” she said matter-of-factly as she sat drawing rainbows with her glitter crayons at the kitchen table. I conceded defeat and went three whole days without telling my daughter I loved her.
It was Thursday, and I was putting Ellie to bed. We’d said prayers, I’d sung her song, and after a few minutes of “snuggling” (in which I am to lie next to her with strict instructions not to touch her, her blankets, or any of her 12 stuffed animals), I told her it was time to go to sleep. I climbed down from her top bunk, then leaned over and kissed the top of her head.
“I lov—I mean, goodnight Els,” I whispered.
Her eyes narrowed. “Uh, Mom, were you about to say I love you?” she asked.
“I was,” I admitted. “Sorry baby, I guess I forgot.”
She heaved a sigh—a sigh that sounded remarkably like the one I issued when she spilled her entire cup of milk at breakfast that morning.
“Fine. You can say it,” she allowed.
“I can? Are you sure?”
“Yes, but you better hurry up.”
“I love you Els,” I said quickly, even risking one more kiss on her cheek. “Sweet dreams.”
I crossed her room and opened the door. I turned back and looked over my shoulder, blowing her two kisses like I always do. Normally, she ignores me in favor of playing with her stuffed animals. Tonight she was looking right at me.
“Hey Mom?” she said, and I crossed back to her bed to hear her over the white noise machine.
“What is it, Els?”
“It’s okay if you forget sometimes,” she said. She rolled away from me and faced the wall, then looked back over her shoulder.
“And I love you, too.”