Paying Forward, Thinking Back

Tony Woodlief writes about being affectionate with his boys:

And then there’s Eli, who this morning greeted me in Army-man garb, though he is less Army man than Snuggle man. His favorite thing is for me to pick him up and cradle him in my arms. Sometimes I hold him tight, his face pressed to mine. When I do this he fits his soft ear into my own, as if he is listening to my thoughts. If he could, what he would hear is, “Thank you,” though he wouldn’t understand why this runs through my mind like a melody. One day he will. This is my prayer for all of them, that they have children who give to them what they have given to me.

As usual, I can identify with Tony. I have always been very affectionate with my three boys. I don’t know how, or why. But I’ve always felt like I was being the Dad I wanted to be when I hugged them, or kissed them on the cheek, or whispered “You know what? I love you.” It just feels right.

Of course, it also feels right when I expect them to behave and to clean up their messes. I can be pretty demanding, too.

But as a child, I had no experience with a Dad who was so free with affection and affirmation. My Dad just wasn’t that type. Not comfortable with hugs and all that. Back then, I didn’t really wonder about it; how would I have known there were other ways to be a Dad, other than who my Dad was and how he was?

It was only later, after I had my own kids, and I found myself wanting to hold them and hug them, that I started to think about any of this. Somehow, I became a different Dad than the only one I had ever had.

I’ve always hugged and kissed all my kids, just about every day. The 18 year old, of course, not so much anymore; but we have our own history of having been very close his entire life. And now I have two more young boys, and there is nothing quite so nice as sitting together on the couch, flanked by my only-young-for-a-while little boys.

I can’t really imagine being a Dad who doesn’t hug and kiss my kids. I know some Dads are like that, and I’m sure most of them are fine parents. And not everybody is into affection all that much.

But, can we talk? Kids are only young for a while, and then they go away. And after they go away, they have memories of us, and we of them. That’s all we have, ultimately.

So even if I was not motivated to be affectionate and silly with my kids just because it is fun and makes me feel all kid-like again, for a moment or two, I figure it’s a win-win if I elbow my way into their memories a little bit by using them to meet my own needs for affection. Memories last forever. Or, at least until we get old and forget who we are.And since we never know how much time we’ve got left — or how much time our kids have left — we honor those we love, and build memories, by showing in silly little ways that we like each other.

Now, my own Dad is gone — he would have been 70 last week — and this lesson is hammered home even more. I don’t have much left, to hold onto, in the physical affection department. Though, to be fair, he did have his own way of showing his affection, and I didn’t really spend much time wondering whether he was glad I was around, so this is not one of those “I resented my Dad because he never told me he loved me” sob stories. He treated me very well, and I was always glad he was my Dad, but as always, we look back on an imperfect life and wish it were a little less imperfect.  As I’m sure my own kids will, someday.

But it does seems like physical affection resides in its own little compartment of the brain; it’s just different, somehow. And for whatever reasons, I’ve found my need to be an affectionate Dad pretty powerful, while my Dad didn’t.

And yet, Life goes on. In just a little while I’ll be taking my two youngest to the Pinewood Derby today, filled with screaming and running kids for many hours. They’ll be in kid heaven, even though their cars probably won’t do very well, yet again.

Not all memories are good, you know.

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