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When Forgetting Means Re-learning.

I realized that I don't hug my mother very much. COVID and living alone have made my arms heavy, hesitant, and empty. I don't know how to reach out and hold people close. I go for days without hugging my own mother. My eyes sting as I think of this. I need to fix it, even though I fear I don't know how. The habit has become foreign.


We didn't hug in the cemetery yesterday. She stood apart from me, leaning against the hood of her car smoking. I leaned against my seat through the open door. We both breathed through tight chests. We both touched the headstones, but not each other. I wonder if she feared falling apart if I touched her. I wonder if she has forgotten how to fall apart or if she just still hates it.

Or if she has forgotten the habit of hugging, too.


Her mother—my grandma—was a hugger. Even when she had dementia, she said goodbye to me with her rib-crushing hug. She was tiny—well beneath five feet. She insisted through her life that she was four-ten and a half. The half mattered. Age had taken away the half and then some across the years.


As long as I remember, she stood broad in a doorway holding you at bay until you had been greeted with a strong hug. Tall grandsons bent down to receive her hugs. She stooped for the littlest ones. Everyone received their terms of affection. (I remember being called "sugar muffin" and “angel” and "snickerdoodle" on occasion.)


If it was cold, you were cold until the hug was over. If it was hot, you sweated. If there were heavy presents in your arms at holidays, you held on. If there was a line, you waited your damned turn. But everyone got their hug.

And you could count on one out the door as well. Don’t get in an all-fired hurry. Don’t think you can sneak out.

Her husband, my grandpa, came from a stiff and non-demonstrative family of German hillbillies. The history of pain and poverty runs deep on that side. My Mom tells me that the brothers could go years without laying eyes on each other, meet up at a funeral, and perhaps shake hands and greet each other by name if they felt deeply moved.


My grandma taught my grandpa’s mother to hug in her old age, and, in the dismayed words of one of my grandpa’s brothers, “ruined my mother.”


What sense would my grandma have made of the distance of COVID? Of empty arms and waving greetings from porches?


The last time I saw grandma, she was able to track who I was—in bits and pieces—across the twenty or so minutes that we visited at her nursing home. Her goodbye was abrupt. She had grown uncomfortable, tired, and confused. She had given up on trying to piece all of the people together, including my partner at the time, who was a total stranger to her.

But grandma hugged me goodbye. Whether she fully knew who I was in that moment or not—whether she knew my name or that I was her granddaughter or her “snickerdoodle” or “sugar muffin” or “angel” or any endearment at all, I had come to see her, and I would leave with a hug. I would know that I mattered.


I need to hug my mother.


When she returns, I need to stand in the doorway—a short, stubborn impediment—and not let her in from the weather until my mom knows that she matters to me.



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