I pull into the daycare parking lot to drop off the swim bag. My twin nine-year-old sons, Emmet and Zephyr, arrived by bike a few minutes earlier, but the bag of swim trunks and towels and goggles is too big and ponderous to balance while they ride, so I followed them by car on my way to work. Zephyr takes the bag out of the backseat and dashes off. I start to back out, but then see Emmet running toward the car. I watch his long, brown legs, thin in the bone, knobbed at the knee, like a colt’s, and I think, for a moment, that nine is my favorite age. Seeing his expression as he hastens toward me—eyebrows creased, mouth set in a line—I wonder if there’s something wrong. Then I see his hands.
He holds them out in front of him, cupped as if cradling a fragile treasure. “Here,” he says, and reaches in through my window. In his palms lies a darner—one of the big dragonflies that skim high over the fields on late summer evenings—brown with green stripes on its slightly crushed thorax, its wings clear and veined like tiny mullioned windows. He found it dead on the side of the road and picked it up, balancing it in one hand as he biked, to give it to me. I need to collect insects for a naturalist class I’m taking, but I don’t much relish the idea of placing living creatures—even bugs—in a jar of acetone in order to pin their carcasses to the bottom of a box. So I’ve been in search of already-dead but well-preserved critters and the boys have appointed themselves my chief insect hunters. I take the dragonfly into my own hands and watch Emmet’s colt legs turn from my car and run to join the other boys on the foursquare court, before I set the insect on my dashboard and drive away.
Emmet and Zephyr are in a not-very-affectionate stage of life—long past the open-mouthed kisses and flying-leap hugs of the toddler days, they dart under my arms and run away when threatened with an embrace. Their one concession to motherly tenderness is to proffer the tops of their heads to receive their good-night kiss. I can relate to my younger boys’ wide girth of personal space. I’ve never been touchy-feely—the unbridled hugging of college students alarmed me when I first arrived on campus, my husband’s grandfather used to scold me for my terrible hugs (body angled to the side, limp arms delivering three quick pats on the back), and even today I get it wrong (which arm goes over and which under? Is there a rule about that?). Maybe my stiff, Germanic heritage is at play here. Although we are close now (affection, perhaps, born of living 2000 miles apart), I don’t recall hugging or cuddling with my parents beyond the age of three or four, and I was positively shocked when my dad hugged me goodbye as I boarded my first airplane when I was a senior in high school.
While visiting them this summer, I asked my mom and dad about their own parents’ displays of physical affection. My mom did not remember her parents hugging and cuddling her at all—when I was a kid, my maternal grandfather’s idea of affection was slapping your bare knee when you sat in the middle spot of the front seat of his big white Suburban, and while I don’t remember hugging my grandmother, I do remember she used kiss her grandchildren goodbye on the lips, something that always made me feel uncomfortable (to this day I dodge to avoid the smack of my husband’s lip-kissing step-mother).
“What about Grandma Lani?” I asked my dad—just the fact that we referred to our grandparents by their last names should indicate the degree of formality in our family—“Do you remember cuddling with her?” He just chuckled. I didn’t even ask about his father, who died when he was young and about whom he maintains a stony silence.
If my kids’ reserve is genetic, it is certainly not learned. Despite my wariness of coming into close physical contact with relative strangers and elderly relatives, I have always been close to my own children, breastfeeding them to the ripe old age of two, holding them on my chest while they napped, curling around them in bed at night. I used to marvel at how they treated my body as an extension of their own—tangling their fingers though my hair, climbing on me, resting their whole selves against mine. I couldn’t imagine being that entirely at home with another person, except that I was—with them. Of course their current phase of physical separateness is a natural part of individuation, and while I miss the way their warm, sweaty heads used to nestle into my collarbone, I am enjoying watching them grow into their own people too much to wish a return to the past.
I don’t know if all boys go through a phase of reserved affection, but I know that my boys do. And I know it is just a stage, because I also have a thirteen-year-old son who, from the ages of nine through twelve, turned into a porcupine—all elbows and quills—any time I attempted to hug him, and he would only solicit a hug when it was extremely inconvenient for me, like when I was carrying a pot of boiling water from stove to sink. It took me far longer than it should have for me to figure out I should put the pot—or whatever I was in the middle of—aside and hug my son if he wanted a hug. Nevertheless, by the time he was thirteen he began to fold his lengthening body into my lap when we watched TV and wrap his lanky arms around me in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. I expect that the younger two will find their way back into the curve of my arms when they need to.
Throughout the course of the summer, Emmet and Zephyr bring me treasures—a cicada found on the street of a small town, its head separated from its body; a tiger moth, with black-and-white-striped forewings and salmon-and-black-spotted hind wings, found dried but intact in a store window; a pair of robber flies discovered in the woods at daycare (I have my suspicions about whether the flies were actually dead when the twins discovered them, but I don’t ask); two slender members of the wasp family, with curled antennae, desiccated our sun room; a hummingbird clearwing moth, mummified in the playhouse window. Each insect is an offering, spoken in the language of nine-year-old boys, and I receive theses gifts in the spirit they are bestowed, more precious than emeralds or rubies, as loving as a hug and a kiss.
Andrea Lani raises three boys in the woods of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Orion, and Northern Woodlands Magazine, among others. She blogs about family, nature, and life at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.