I love kisses. All kinds. The sweet little girl smooches. The best friend kiss and tell. The back seat make-out medley. The peck on the cheek. The gentle ones blown across the room. The long kiss goodbye. And the one that makes it all better.
There’s also nothing like the first kiss. The first first. Or the first with someone new. The first kiss lights our hearts on fire. And stays with us a lifetime. We never forget it. We may forget the name. But never the kiss.
There is one kiss, however, that I don’t remember. And the truth is, it was my very first kiss. Long before the kisses with romantic undertones. The original one that trumps all others. And most of us were blessed with a kiss such as this. For me, it came from Ma in the minutes after I was born.
Little back story. I don’t remember anything about me before the age of five. It’s like my life began when I started school. I’m not sure what it is about going to school that awakens us from childhood amnesia, nor why we start remembering things. My first recollection is that of being a Mama’s girl. No doubt about it. I was a clingy fearful child. And I never wanted Ma to be out of my sight. This must have made life difficult for her. Having me literally clinging to her skirt like a three-toed sloth. But anxieties often have curious origins and I’m convinced that at the root of my childhood malaise was Ma’s age.
She would have been considered “older” when she had me. By today’s standards, she would have been a spring chicken. But back then she was noticeably older than most of my friends’ mothers. At least that’s how it seemed to me. Ma had already been married once before and had three kids by the time I came along. That alone, put her in the same category as Methuselah in my books. I worried about her not being around to raise me. I remember calculating how old I’d be if she died at fifty, which seemed unfathomably ancient at the time. How would I survive without her? The Old Man was capable enough but he was no Ma. And he was The Old Man after all. If my calculations were right, there was a strong possibility that he would outlive her. He was four years her junior and a man. With that kind of logic, along with dog-years mathematics, I figured biologically he was at least 28 years younger than Ma. Of course, my worries were for not. Nothing happened to Ma nor The Old Man. But the fear of losing Ma was real to me just the same. On the other hand, I also had the same fear of losing my dog Sugar. I used to do a similar calculation with her life expectancy. The mammoth question in my minuscule mind was always, “would she live long enough to survive my childhood and teenage years?” I wanted Sugar to live forever. Or at least as long as a horse, an elephant or ideally a tortoise. It didn’t seem fair that dogs didn’t get this same shot at longevity. I needed her around until I graduated from high school, at the very least. She was my surrogate sibling and my love for her defied description. True to her name, she gave me lots of sugar. She not only survived my high school years, but she lived a year beyond my graduation from University. I will always remember her sweet doggy kisses.
I look back and remember those clingy years with equal doses of horror and astonishment. It’s Friday night. Ma and The Old Man are getting dressed to go out to a movie. I’m like a distressed dog, who senses when it’s owners are leaving the house, and most likely without them. I could smell abandonment in their every move. It didn’t matter that it would only be for an hour or two. It didn’t matter that my older sister was there with me. There wasn’t a treat or bribe in the world that could convince me that things would be okay if Ma walked out the door without me. All that mattered was that I was being left behind. What if Ma never came back? What would happen then? So I did what every tiresome clingy kid does. I bawled my eyes out. I was too young to intellectually know how manipulative I was being. I only knew that if I cried loud enough. Begged and pleaded hard enough. Flailed and foamed at the mouth. Ma would come to her senses and not go. This worked like a charm every time. Ma, of course would comfort me. And we’d settle in for the night. I’d snuggle in her arms and she’d stroke my hair and kiss my forehead. Things were as they should be.
Starting kindergarten was equally traumatic. The first week was torturous. For both Ma and me. I recall sitting on her lap and refusing to join the other kids. Soaking her short-sleeved sweater in tears and snot. My arms wrapped around her neck like a noose. The more she tried to pull away, the harder my strangle-hold on her grew. Eventually, she was able to coax me into staying in the classroom without her. My fears dissipated. It wasn’t long before Ma was able to kiss me on the cheek and send me on my merry way. I actually grew to love going to school, to be independent for a few hours, and be with my friends. It was also, the beginning of my love and admiration for teachers. Mrs. O. soon became someone I could trust. Maybe not love like Ma. But pretty close.
That was the beginning of our daily kisses. Every school day morning Ma would escort me to the front door. Most days she would be all dressed and ready for her day. In fall and winter she mainly wore slacks and coordinating tops. And in the warmer months the tops were worn with pedal pushers or capris. No make-up, just a splash of lipstick once and awhile. This was the practical attire of a woman who spent her days cleaning the house, washing clothes in a ringer washing machine and hanging them on the line to dry, cooking meals, and baking goodies.
During the winter, Ma would help me with my outerwear. Snow jacket and pants. Lined rubber boots. Hat and scarf wrapped around my neck like a woolen neck ring. I was a northern Giraffe Girl. In the spring and early summer she would make sure my shoes were done up properly, and if it was chilly or raining my sweater or raincoat was properly fastened. Once I was thoroughly wrapped, buttoned or buckled, I would look up at Ma expectantly. She would then lean down and give me a kiss on the cheek. She smelled divine. A combination of sweet tea and Second Debut. Her skin was as soft as velvet. Her lips warm and tender. Her love deep and sincere. This was all I needed to venture forth with confidence. Her kiss was the secret sauce. On with my day I went. Much to look forward to. And then at four o’clock I would return to the smell of freshly baked peanut butter cookies or chocolate brownies. It was pure magic.
This sacred ritual of daily kisses carried on right through high school and university. Even as a young woman with a child of my own, Ma would escort me to the door where we would exchange kisses. By the time I was in my second year of university I was a mother. Ma looked after my son while I attended classes. She would carry him to the door on her hip. I would kiss his sweet round face. And then kiss Ma on the cheek. I was now the kisser. Some mornings she was still in her flannel nighty when she walked me to the door. By then I was taller than her. She was so diminutive. I had to lean down to kiss her. Breathe in the Second Debut. The faint hint of peanut butter and home made strawberry jam on her lips. My son on her hip, smelling in need of a diaper change. That would come after the kisses were delivered. Confidently I stepped out the door. Back pack full of books. Head down, deep in concentration. So much to look forward to. So much to learn.
When I moved away from home, the kisses grew scarcer. But sweeter. Time and distance had their way. Daily rituals were disrupted. But never forgotten. Visits home were greeted with kisses of delight and joy. Departures met with ones that lingered. Imprinting the place where lips met cheeks. Love and memories imbedded for life.
There were also all the special occasion and celebratory kisses. Birthdays. Christmas. Mother’s Day. Graduation. Weddings. The birth of my children. Then there were the comforting kisses. The skinned knee. The bruised shin. The broken heart. The end of things. The losses. And the best of all, the everyday kisses. Little love plants here and there and everywhere. For no reason in particular. Just little reminders that no matter how old, or where you are in life, love can be captured in an instant. And seized in a kiss.
I have no memory of Ma’s first kiss. But because I’ve given three children their first one, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the exchange was like. She gazed down at me with wonder and awe. And I peered through a veil of newborn fog into her warm chocolate eyes. I knew instinctively that I was loved. Would always be loved. Unconditionally. Uncontrollably. Unequivocally. I was hers. And she was mine.
The last time I kissed Ma, I didn’t know it was the last time. A good thing I suppose. Had I known, I would have been a clingy five-year old with my arms wrapped around her neck. Unable to let go. But I will remember that last kiss all the days of my life. It will linger on my lips for eternity. That, and the smell of Second Debut.