As an infant, I swam in a universe of touch as I had swum in my mother’s amniotic fluid. I was held, hugged, patted, and kissed by relatives ranging from youthful aunts to doddering, black-clad, anonymous ancestors who left slightly moist imprints on my face. I was expected to return kiss for kiss, and I can still smell my Barcelona grandmother’s curious almond smell, and feel the soft down of her cheeks on my lips. Nor was the kissing limited to me. Adults of both genders kissed at the beginning and the end of each encounter, no matter how brief. My father kissed, and was kissed by, not just his sisters, but his mother and father every time they saw each other.
There were special kissing protocols for me at home. In addition to the formal good-bye and hello kisses, there were the spontaneous kisses bestowed by my mother and less often by my father, although his were made memorable by the ticklishness of his mustache. After I kissed my parents good night and they made the sign of the Cross over me, I kissed their hands. If I had been scolded for doing something wrong, when it was over I was invited to kiss my mother’s hand, as a sign of “reconciliation.” I can’t remember much about these reconciliations, probably because I seldom misbehaved. (This lack of misbehavior, stemming more from timidity than from real virtue, is not something I am especially proud of.) We did not kiss friends or strangers, with the exception of priests, whose hands we kissed whenever we met one.
The kissing of relatives ceased when we moved to Ecuador, and as I reached puberty my parents’ kisses dwindled to the greeting and farewell kind. When we were packing to come to the U.S., my mother said, “I have heard that in North America boys and girls kiss each other like it was nothing. We wouldn’t ever want you to be like that.” I found out years later that, before risking my virtue by bringing me to America, my parents had consulted a well-traveled Carmelite priest, who assured them that it was possible for a girl to remain unkissed even in the land of Elvis Presley.
Needless to say, the kissing habits of American teenagers ranked high on my list of culture shocks. Years passed, and I eventually married an American, in whose family I encountered a different set of kissing patterns. Not only did parents and children not kiss each other at every opportunity, but my father-in-law, who would greet me with a kiss when we visited, did not kiss his own son, my husband. Instead, he shook his hand. This amazed me–apparently in America the risk of heterosexual temptation was considered less dangerous than the risk of homosexual feelings (or the appearance of those feelings) between father and son. It reminded me of a pregnant friend who refused to visit a female obstetrician because, she said, “it would be too much like queers.” As for the butt-slaps that football players indulged in on the field, that made no sense to me at all.
But in early childhood I took the hugging and kissing and patting for granted, and it is only lately that I have felt lucky for the sea of physical affection that engulfed me. The ancient Greeks believed that mother bears gave their cubs physical shape by licking them. Like the swipes of a she-bear’s tongue, the kisses and caresses that warmed my infancy shaped me into who I am.