We didn’t hug or kiss in my family. Nobody ever said, “I love you.” On the last day of her life, my mother whispered, “All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.” Guess that’s as close as she could come to expressing affection.
Still I have to suppose my parents did love me in their own stifled way. For sure they gave great presents. I’m looking at the top of my bureau adorned with a silver set from Tiffany — comb, brush and mirror that my dad had monogrammed for my sixteenth birthday. The eighteenth century wooden box with brass corners was a Christmas present from my mother. Two centuries ago it accompanied a lady on her travels. Today my treasures are tucked into its narrow compartments.
Along with many gifts from my husband, there’s a Victorian pin from my mother, love knots studded with pearls. A handsome bracelet dates to my father’s World War II service in the Navy. Dodging the usual ID bracelet, Daddy had one made in gold — thick links and a plate with his name on it. On my twenty-first birthday He removed the plate and hung a heavy gold disk from the links, inscribing it with my name and birth date in his distinctive handwriting. Twice I’ve had a jeweler retrace those spiky letters to keep them visible. Proof that my father loved me.
My parents were an odd match. My mother, who was in Katherine Hepburn’s class at Bryn Mawr majored in Asian art. When she met my father, she was a curator at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Daddy had only a scraping of formal education, but a love of beauty was in his bones. He might have been an architect had he gone to college, but in the thick of the Depression, he turned to interior decorating. He had a successful fifty year career, finishing with The Wall Street Journal as a prized client. One of the few things the two of them had in common was an appreciation for beautiful things.
I must admit I reaped many benefits from their excellent taste. When Daddy was stationed in Canada during the war, my mother left me with my grandparents so she could follow him. Rather than saying, “we’ll miss you” she gave me a refinished sewing table with three drawers filled with curiosities like a tiny chess set and miniature ivory dominoes. Daddy gave me a windup victrola with a stack of popular records and a photo of himself in his lieutenant commander’s uniform. Only years later, while raising a family of my own, did I realize how strange it was for parents to leave a sixth grader for two years without making more of a fuss.
But after all I survived. And thanks to their obsessions, I now own a houseful of inherited things – a grandfather’s clock signed by the maker, silver candelabra, antique desks and bureaus and piles of Meissen and Spode dishes which still delight my eye. A strange tradeoff maybe, beautiful objects as a substitute for expressed affection. But I like to think it did no lasting harm.
Reacting to early conditioning, I used to stiffen when people tried to hug and kiss me. But the farther I got from home, the warmer I became. When my three babies came along, holding them close, kissing their eyelids, singing nonsense songs to them, began to feel as natural as breathing. I’ll never toss off “Love you” at the end of every phone call, but I feel sure my grown children know I do.
All three of them are artists and have their own ideas on beauty which tend to be radically different from mine. Basically our jeweler, painter and woodworker are more focused on creating than collecting. Observing their taste and the taste of their children makes me predict that someday in the future our house will be the site for the Grandaddy of all Garage Sales. As buyers walk away, clutching spindly legged chairs, silver teapots and maybe even my cherished old sewing table, I hope they’ll be headed for homes where hugs and kisses are as common as dandelions. Where people value each other more than their possessions.