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Arm in Arm

Copyright © 1996 by John Thorndike

This article appeared in the June 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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Throughout my teens and early twenties, my mother cut my fingernails for me. When I came home on vacation from boarding school or college, we sat together on a wooden chest in her bedroom, looking out over Long Island Sound. Outside, the gulls cried and small waves pushed through the eelgrass. Mom's leisurely pace gave us time to talk. She trimmed my nails with a pair of rounded scissors, then smoothed them with an emery board as she asked about my friends, my classes, my distant life at school.

I never initiated those encounters, nor mentioned them to anyone. But I liked having my mother fuss over me. Now that touching each other had become so difficult, that small ritual was our last excuse to hold hands.

My own son, Janir, turned 25 last fall. He's an energetic and independent young man, perfectly beautiful to me, and whenever I see him-perhaps four or five times a year-we hug each other freely. We wrap our arms around each other and hold our faces close. But after that first greeting, I think we both hold back. American men do not commonly embrace or walk arm in arm. They rarely even stand shoulder to shoulder, close enough to touch. The constraints are subtle but pervasive, and now that my son is an adult, I think neither one of us gets to hold on to the other as much as we'd like.

I raised Janir on my own, starting when he was two, after his mother's eccentric behavior turned dangerous. Clarisa was an adult-onset schizophrenic, and her emotional drift out of the marriage threw my son and me together. As a young boy, he was quick to drape himself around my neck, quick to poke his toes in my face so I'd play with them. He liked those in-and-out-of-my-arms games, in which I tossed him into a pile of leaves or onto the couch, over and over. He climbed on my back, he played with my ears, he leapt through the air and made me catch him. His bedtime each night was a long session of songs and stories as he lay with his head next to mine.

Most young children are the same: if you let them, they'll crawl all over you. And when they grow older, it's often their parents who pull back. Shere Hite, in her recent book, The Hite Report on the Family, claims that most children go for ten years without significant body contact. "When you think about it," she writes, "children are almost completely physically cut off from others between the ages of five and fifteen."

I grew up like that myself. My New England family was solid and supportive and respectful of children-but in my memory, no one in the household was hugging anyone else. I never thought of this as strange, because my friends were all growing up the same way.

Much had changed by the time I started raising Janir on my own. Embraces were flowing freely in the counterculture of the early seventies, and Clarisa, before the start of her schizophrenia, had been a fond and physically devoted mother who believed in letting Janir decide for himself when to eat, when to be picked up, when and where to sleep. Following her lead, I let my son choose the level of intimacy between us-which was how we came to spend so much time face to face and body to body.

That has an ominous ring these days. But children will let you know when they want to be left alone. That happened rarely when Janir was young, more commonly when he was twelve or fourteen, when he didn't want me to put my arm around his shoulders after a soccer game or at the movies. Yet even then home remained our sanctuary, and well into high school we continued our snug bedtime readings. Tolkien and Roald Dahl gave way to the Hornblower series from C.S. Forester, to Roger Angell on baseball, to Maya Angelou's memoirs and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.If we hadn't had the chance all day, this was our time to stretch out side by side and feel each other breathe.

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