My dad was a real man: square shouldered, muscled, emotions in check, direct, and fierce. Think of John Wayne without a swagger. Back in the sixties some of his co-workers threatened to kill him and our family (I took one of the phone calls) for refusing to sign a petition to block an African American from transferring from the docks to a road driver position. I asked him why he didn’t just sign. He responded, “He’s a man just like I am and he has the right to provide for his family just like I do.”
When I was small I watched him bear hug one of my uncles, pick him up and carry him into my grand-parents back yard. My uncle was inebriated and threatening my grand-father. Dad put him down, spun him around and said, “What you and Mr. Tyler do when I’m not here is yall’s business. But if I’m here, you had better not lay a hand on him. Do you hear me?”
He was intimidating without even trying. He only spanked me once, a swat on the leg for not letting him put my shoes on me; I was three, but I remember. Shirley got a spanking for walking out into a busy street. I think Jimmy got a couple but that was before my time. The baby, Darlene, was cheated out of the privilege of these precious memories.
Mom was the disciplinarian, but she used Dad as her back-up threat. “You had better not resist me when I spank you. If you do I’ll tell your dad when he gets home, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop him once he gets started.” We grew up with that fear. Dad would kill us if we disobeyed our mother, no question about it.
Dad spanked us with his eyes. When he wasn’t pleased with our behavior we knew it without a word being spoken. If he did speak it was a simple declarative question, “You’re not going to do that again, are you?”
We trembled at his displeasure. Although never far from our consciousness, these experiences were in fact few and far between. Dad was really a gentle, loving man. He practiced Godly touch without even knowing that is what he was doing, especially when saying hello or good-by to a family member. “Son, you should always greet your relatives right. Give the men a firm hand shake. Give the women a kiss or at least a hug, especially your aunts.” As for us, we always got a hug and a kiss on the cheek when he left for work and when he got home. Most significantly, he always seemed happy for the ritual. He took great pleasure in this simple expression of love.
We live in an age when children are all too often objects in the lives of adults. Upwardly mobile parents might treat them like social accessories, emblems of success. Among every social strata and every ethnic group they are far too frequently battered and used for perverted gratification. Society’s misguided response is to prohibit healthy touch by authority figures. School teachers are forbidden to hug a child even in a time of crises. In an effort to protect them we are isolating and emotionally crippling them.
Children need to know they are loved; they are valued; they are important; they are not alone. They need to be connected; they need healthy touch. They need hugs and kisses.
I have my fair share of neuroses. I wouldn’t want to be a case study in a clinical psych textbook. But I am confident of who I am; I am the youngest son of James Ellis Johns who modeled very well for me what it means to love and be loved. For as long as my father lived there was never a fraction of a second that I doubted I was loved and that I belonged. I am so very thankful for his hugs and kisses. I miss them greatly.
January 28, 2010