When my son steered me into the kitchen and turned me to face the shelves where I keep kitchen utensils, close to the counter, I was reminded suddenly of a moment from my childhood, when my mother steered me from the room where I’d been sequestered back into the dining room for my birthday celebration. “Now you can open your eyes,” she’d told me. I did, onto a cake on the table and an array of presents. One of them must have been too big to wrap. What was it? No idea. What flavor the cake? No idea. What was my feeling? The same excited expectation as when my son told me, “Now you can look.”
“Where? Where?” I asked.
“Right in front of your eyes!”
And sure enough, there were the house keys I’d lost that morning—unless I had lost them the evening before—and had looked for all over the house, including in my son’s room. And here they were, right where I’d put them for a second and then forgotten. “Oh!” I exclaimed to my son, “I love you!”
The words shocked me. How long since I’d said those words? A long time. My sons don’t like unwarranted pronouncements of affection. Mushy declarations. Sentimentality. I don’t either. So I am not in the habit of proclaiming my feelings. But sometimes one must give voice to a sudden interior eruption of gladness, as when your lost keys turn up. “Oh, I love you!” meant simply, “You’ve made me so glad!” That was almost okay.
But perhaps it hadn’t been so long: I am sometimes smitten anew with one or another of my cats and scoop the animal up, bury my face in its fur, and say, “I love you!” They do not rebuff me, as my sons would, but take it in stride, and that is almost what I pictured one day in my advanced class a week before my recovered keys inspired that gush of love. We had been talking about travel, and I had expressed surprise when the three young women said that they’d jump at a chance to travel. If they were to win the lottery, that’s what they would do—travel. “For how long?” I asked. The schoolteacher, about 23, said six months. The high school student said a year, after she’d earned her high school degree. The artist, finishing her university studies now, also said six months.
Six months! Nothing could induce me to leave my home for that long. I asked the students, “Wouldn’t you get tired of never sleeping in the same place? Wouldn’t you want to see your family? Sleep in your own bed?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the artist, who told us that she had indeed felt that after traveling for a couple of months before the pandemic. “I got home. ‘My things! My bed!’” And to demonstrate the joy of her homecoming, she put her hands out and her head back, as if blinded by ecstasy. I immediately pictured her on her back on her neatly made bed, wriggling with the pleasure of her own spot.
The two other students and I asked her to tell us more about her travels. She’d hitched around Europe, she said. Alone? we asked. No, with her boyfriend. Weren’t you afraid? No. People were nice. A van driven by a young girl who worked in a circus had stopped for her and her boyfriend in the south of France. The back was full of performers, and when they stopped for the night, they gave an impromptu show. “So no, not afraid,” my student said. “Not at all. They were so cute! I wanted to hug them and tell them ‘I love you!’”
I sympathized with my student. You want to say it, not only at crucial meaningful moments when it is expected, but spontaneously too. Had she given in, would her cadre of performers been as cool as my cats when I nuzzle them? Taking bows, waving, and returning for an encore might be appropriate for performers responding to a glad audience, but I pictured this young troupe yawning catlike, stretching, perhaps mildly surprised by the display of affection. But tolerating it, though never needing it, just like my cats.
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