My wife was standing in the kitchen looking at something on her phone. I came up from behind, put my arms around her waist, and kissed her neck. She shivered slightly, then she turned around, and I did one of those dramatic dip kiss things you see in movies. She held onto my shoulders, laughed a little as we kissed. Then I pulled her back up, and winked, and then we kissed one more time.
It was then that I could feel someone watching us. To our right were our son (age 12) and our daughter (age 9) doing homework at the kitchen table. Norah smiled, like she often does in situations like this. When Mel and I show affection, she thinks it’s cute. But my son, well… he might as well have been looking at a gruesome car accident, his mouth open slightly, blue eyes ready to roll.
Mel and I have never had a formal discussion on why we are affectionate around our children, so I can’t speak for why she does it. But I’ll tell you why I do. My parents went through a pretty nasty divorce when I was nine. I don’t have a lot of memories of them together, and the ones I do have are mostly of them fighting. But I have this one memory of the two of them in the living room. My father was in tight Wrangler jeans and black socks. He wore a blue button up work shirt with his name below the right shoulder, his black hair parted to the side. My mother was in a green and flower print dress and also shoeless. They were standing back to back, and my father was running his left hand across their heads, trying to figure out who was taller. Mom was on her tippy toes so she could match my father’s height. He looked down, and caught her cheating. They both flipped around, and laughed, and then dad took her in his arms, and dipped her, dramatically, just like I did in the kitchen years later with Mel.
I was watching silently from the hallway, and I remember that I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m still smiling, right now, as I write about it. It was one of the most adorable things I’d ever seen, and I remember thinking that someday, I wanted a relationship like that. I’d never seen my father show his love for my mother in that way. And when I think back on that moment, I realize that it was this little glimpse of what a loving relationship ought to look like. It felt like this road map for affection.
It’s funny how a small moment like that can really change someone. My father died divorcing his fourth wife. My mother is on her third marriage, now. That memory is really the only one I have of seeing either of them show affection with each other, or any of the partners they were with later in life. And you know what? That’s sad. It feels like each one of their marriages were closer to roommates than loving, affectionate couples.
I don’t want to set that example for my children. I want them to go into a relationship expecting healthy playful affection. And it’s not only physical affection I want them to observe. I can’t remember my parents saying, “I love you.” I can’t remember them going out on dates, or my father bringing home flowers, or them going away for the weekend. I tell Mel I love her every day, and she says it back to me. We hold hands in front of the kids. I take my children with me to buy flowers for their mother, and I include them in the process. I talk to them about how important this sort of action is in a relationship.
My wife is a gardener. We moved into a new house about a year ago, and this spring I built Mel new garden beds. When I filled them with dirt, I dragged our son out to help. As we were shoveling, he asked me why we were doing all this when neither of us enjoyed gardening. I took a breath, looked down at him, and asked if he loved his mother.
“Good,” I said. “So do I.”
Then I gestured at the truck full of dirt, and the garden beds, and the shovels, all of it, and said, “This is what love looks like. We help the ones we love. That’s how it works.”
More than anything, I’m trying to give them the example that I didn’t have. I don’t want them to go into a relationship and not understand that love is a verb. Love must be shown through actions and words. I want them to expect affection from the person they love, and I want them to feel comfortable freely showing their affection because I know how important that is.
When my son watched Mel and me kiss in the kitchen, we didn’t explain ourselves. We didn’t tell him to get over it, or anything like that. Instead, I came around the right side of the table, and Mel came around from the left. We cried out, in unison, “Hug sandwich!”
Mel and I smashed him between us. Mel kissed his head, and he tried pushing us away, acting like he wasn’t enjoying all this affection coming from his doting parents. Then he went slack, and after a moment, he wrapped his arms around both of us.