The second kiss. Does anyone even remember? We don’t write love songs about the Numero Duo. No passionate odes. Or lyrical poems. Tragic melodramas. Nothing much comes to mind. No backward glances. No second chances. Or even a second thought. Nada.
Ma gave me my first kiss. And The Old Man gave me the second. The order and circumstances of these inceptive parental kisses most likely set the tone for our future relationships. The Old Man would always be second best in my life. The first kiss trumps everything after all.
Little back story. The Old Man was an emotional guy. He laughed easily and heartily. Flew off the handle at the drop of a hat. Tears welled in his eyes when he watched something sad on TV. He cried like a baby when our birds, Petie 1 and Petie 2, died. But as emotional as he was, I don’t remember him being comfortable expressing his love. Yet oddly enough I always felt loved by him. That was the paradox of The Old Man. Emotional yet stoic. Loving but unable to show it. The stoicism was in his DNA. He was a Finlander and they aren’t known for their overt expressions of love. They aren’t huggy people. Like the Italians. Like Ma.
Part of the way The Old Man was had to do with his generation. Back then, men were different than they are today. Real men not only didn’t eat quiche. They didn’t seek help. There was no Burning Man. There were no public displays of affection either. It embarrassed everybody. Husband. Wife. And especially the kids. Even the pets hid in self-conscious mortification. All that mushy stuff went on behind closed doors. If it went on at all. Most kids, myself included, preferred to think that it didn’t. I was perfectly content in the belief that I was plucked from the cabbage patch. Then carried in a pink flannel blanket by a stork and placed into Ma’s waiting arms. Some myths are worth perpetuating.
The Old Man used to kiss Ma lightly on the lips before going to work every morning. Perhaps “kiss” is a bit of an exaggeration. It was more like a little peck. A light brush. An accidental skim of the lips. I don’t even recall them holding hands. But he did put his arm around her for pictures. I don’t think he was just putting it on for the camera. I look at the old photographs and I see a man showing the world that the Italian beauty next to him was his girl. Sometimes he’d come up from behind while she was busy cooking and give her a little peck on the cheek. She’d pretend to be annoyed and send him on his way but secretly I think she loved the attention. Loved that he loved her.
Saying I love you didn’t come easily back then either. Another embarrassing thing that sent everyone running for cover. Saying it was awkward. Uncomfortable. And often blush inducing. It was especially difficult if you were even the least bit shy, which our family was. It was written in all the greeting cards of course. At the end of the rhyming couplet. Love and X’s and O’s. Hallmark took care of everything. But it was rarely openly and easily said. It was just understood. A given. Taken for granted. Families loved each. Parents loved one another. Parents loved their kids. And kids loved them back. There was never any doubt in my mind that I was loved, whether the words were spoken or not.
When I was in my late teens I fell in love for the first time. I found myself expressing that love to this young man. It came naturally. Like breathing. Nothing much came of this callow relationship. It fizzled pretty quickly. My young teenage heart was crushed. There would never be another quite like him. But every cloud has its silver lining. And mine was three little words. I love you. Suddenly I was liberated. It was the beginning of my Flower Power chapter. The Age of Aquarius was just dawning on me. And I was determined to openly and freely tell people that I loved them. I wanted to introduce the phrase into my daily conversation. It no longer needed to be pulled out of the mothballs for special occasions. Like the good dishes for Christmas dinner.
Saying I love you to Ma was a piece of cake. It wasn’t long before our good-bye kisses included an I love you. Off I went to school with an I love you tucked inside my heart. Ma stayed home with hers held equally close. But saying I love you to The Old Man wasn’t quite as easy. But I did say it eventually. Not every day like with Ma. But I said it and I’m grateful I did. The truth is, he needed to hear it. Craved it. Like sugar. And I needed to say it to him. The last time I told him I loved him was when I went home to bury Ma. By then The Old Man was living in an old folks home. I visited him every day during that week. He had grown frail and was wheelchair bound. His hearing was pretty much gone. It was the night before my return to the Westcoast. He was in the common sitting room. The gathering place. It was eerily quiet. Surreal. The only conversation was the one coming from the television set. When my niece and I opened the steel double doors to the room, we were greeted by a group of elderly folks sitting in wheelchairs. They were all just sitting there facing the door. Like it was a stage and they were the audience waiting for the show to begin. Expectant. Eager. Earnest. But there was also something else that I saw in their faces. Hope. Maybe tonight was their night. Tonight there would be a visitor just for them. Someone from their past who loved them.
But on this particular night, the visitor was for The Old Man. He wasn’t part of the audience watching the door. He was by the television set, his head slumped on his chest, his eyes closed. I touched his shoulder, which was thin and bony under his flannel shirt. He came to life. We had a short visit. It was a shouting match actually. Because he refused to wear his hearing aid, having a private conversation was impossible. So we yelled at each other for an hour. Some things never change.
When it was time to leave I bent down and shouted in his ear. Not just because he couldn’t hear, but because I knew it was my last chance to say it to him. Loud and clear. For eternity. For the whole world to hear. I LOVE YOU DAD. Then I gave a kiss on the cheek to the one who gave me my second. He told me he loved me too. By this time all the old folks had turned their wheelchairs around and were no longer watching the door. All eyes were on us. After I shouted my love to The Old Man, the entire room let out a collective “Awwwww.” Not applause exactly. But close.
The Old Man smelled different than Ma. She was all sweet tea, peppermint Chicklets and Second Debut. His scent was inconsistent. Right after work he smelled of bakery dust and sweat. He’d head to the bathroom to wash it off and emerge smelling of Ivory soap and Brylcreem. On special occasions, or on Sundays, he simply smelled fresh and clean. Old Spice. And everything nice. But on that last kiss good-bye he smelled peculiar. Off. Tinny. Sour. The smell of death around the corner. All the more reason to shout I love you.
I’ve thought about that last scene with my father many times over the years. And how hungry everyone in that sitting room was for some expression of love. And how it took their breath away when they heard the words “I love you” shouted with such wild abandon. Such a sublime and wondrous thing to hear.
I love you. And you. And you. And you.