I Love You

Childhood memories can be selective. As we age, we filter out some memories, usually the bad ones, and retain those that are pleasant, embellishing them in the process. Some unpleasant memories stick around and, as with the nice ones, we embellish those also. Thus it was, the other day that it dawned on me that I could not recall a time when I saw my parents embrace or even hold hands. There were occasional good bye kisses as one or the other left the house, but never one that I can remember to be spontaneous. In reflection, the same can be said for the parents of my peers, there were never any public displays of affection (we had not invented the acronym PDA in the 50s). Films and television programs of the period also reflected this platonic attitude. In Casablanca, the great love affair between Rick and Ilsa is implied, yet Bogart and Bergman never kiss in the film and they are shown embracing only once. Even less affection is shown between Ilsa and her husband, Victor Laslo. They talk as acquaintances, not husband and wife, and when he leaves her to go to an underground meeting, he does so without evening touching her, let alone kissing her goodbye.

Television was no better. Probably the best known couple of the time was Lucille Ball and Desi Amez. Yet they slept in double beds and a kiss on the cheek was about as racy as it got. Yet they did have a child and Lucy’s pregnancy was openly acknowledged in the program. That was a first and considered quite daring for its time. There was an exception, The Honeymooners where Ralph Kramden openly embraces his wife Alice and does give her a proper kiss. Granted, it usually is a result of Ralph apologizing (he was constantly in the dog house), but the affection portrayed went beyond what was usually depicted. Raw passion, seldom depicted but occasionally hinted at, commonly was associated with women of easy virtue. Nice girls, it seems, didn’t indulge in that sort of thing.

Intimacy aside, I can never recall hearing either of my parents saying “I love you” to the other. Ralph Kramden never said “I love you” to Alice, the closest he came was saying “baby, you’re the greatest.” Lucy and Desi did say those words to one another, but usually at the prodding of the other and usually as a reassurance that the individual was not angry. It was never a spontaneous declaration.

It goes without saying that my parents never told me that they loved me and, to my recollection, never hugged me either. Sadly, I did not expect either. I thought that this was the normal way of things. If children were shown receiving affection, they were shown as unwilling recipients of the same, implying that no self-respecting child would allow this intimacy, that it somehow was not normal. One of the more popular family television series of the time, The Nelsons, an early carryover from radio, showed a real family portraying themselves for television. Ozzie was the wise purveyor of truth and justice while Harriet was the ideal homemaker who did all of her housework in high heels. The two boys, David and Rickie, were obedient; never openly angry with their parents and always compliant to their wishes. No one was hugged and no one said I love you.

Thus it was that when I reached the point in the relationship with my future wife that I knew without doubt that I loved her, that I found it almost impossible to tell her so. I was afraid, afraid of seeming too forward, afraid of being rejected and was almost physically ill when I finally blurted the words out to her. “I love you” I said into the darkness. “I love you too” came the reply. Yet while those around us might have suspected, they never heard either of us say “I love you” to each other and when I was away to college, writing to her every day, I would write 143 on the flap of the envelope; our secret expressed in simple code.

The strict moral code of the 50s left me stunted. Even though our children have seen us being openly affectionate, sometimes to their embarrassment when they were younger (“ugh, I think I’m going to be sick”), I found it difficult to be affectionate with my children. I did/do hug them (not enough) and I did/do tell them I love them (again not enough), but every time I do so, I am aware of a gallery of onlookers shaking their heads in silent disapproval. I can ignore them, but never quite shut them out.