I can date the memory by the house we were living in: I was 10. I woke up from a nightmare, a recurring theme of being kidnapped in view of my mother and of her turning her back, tight-lipped, not wanting to see. But when I awoke from this particular dream I just could not shake the horror. I surrounded myself with stuffed animals, listened to my sister breathing peacefully in the next bed, said my prayers like a good Catholic girl: but the fear kept pounding through me. I just didn't know what to do. I finally got up and went to my mother's room.
My father could sleep through a tornado, but my mother was a very light sleeper, so I stood in the doorway of their room and whispered, Mom. She instantly raised her head and said, what's wrong? I explained that I didn't know what to do to shake off the nightmare so I could go back to sleep, that I had tried and that it just wouldn't stop. She sat up and patted the bed in front of her, and said, come here.
My stomach sank. I knew she would slap me for waking her over something so trivial, and that she wanted me to get closer so that she didn't have to lunge for me: if her legs had not been paralyzed by polio, she probably would have stood, but she could not and so she relied on our obedience. There was nowhere to run that wouldn't make it worse anyway: better to just get it over with. I closed half the distance between us and stopped, hopefully, but she patted the bed again. Come HERE, she whispered loudly.
I sat down in the spot she had indicated, shoulders tensed and eyes down, waiting. Then she did something I have never forgotten: she put her arms around me, and held me.
She had not done that since before I could remember. I was overwhelmed. The only way she had touched me for years was to smack me. I still hugged my brother, who was young enough to hug me back: but no one had touched me like this for years. Everything in me relaxed. It was such a powerful magic.
She stopped after about 30 seconds, and asked if it was better. And it was. The fear that had shaken me for the better part of an hour was gone without a trace, and I felt the most lovely peace flowing all through my veins. I said yes, and thank you, and went back to bed: but I couldn't sleep for a while. The feeling of being held like that had been unbearably sweet, and I was drunk on it, unwilling to let it go until sleep finally took me anyway. 37 years later, I still remember what a miracle that moment was to me: and it breaks my heart that my childhood was so impoverished of even the simplest affection. I know she loved me as much as she could, that she just wasn't capable of more: but Mom, it was not enough! I am still so hungry after all these years: and the mark of it will always be with me, every day, every day.
(My son is 16. He casually puts his feet in my lap when we watch TV, and I rub them: I hug him often, and he still hugs back, even in front of his friends. He will never know this particular sorrow. He will never wonder if he was loved.)