As a young child, my grandfather would often greet me with outstretched arms—a welcoming and warm expression of his love and acceptance. But before giving me a hug, his hands would cradle my jaw, one hand on each side, firmly holding my head. Then I would collapse into his legs where he would envelope me and say in his Armenian accent, “How is the Bob?”
I have done the same with my grandchildren. Yet, I wonder at what age this will feel uncomfortable to them. When will they outgrow this type of physical contact and feel too mature to accept it? I lament that we ever outgrow this kind of affection, for I still feel the impulse with my closest loved ones—my wife, our children, brothers, nephews, nieces, and in-laws.
In the Armenian American community where I grew up, cradling the face was common among people of all ages. Cultural differences in expressing affection don’t easily translate, just like many words can’t literally be translated. What does it mean to have this kind of physical contact?
It expresses the nature of the relationship, the bond of family (whether by blood or choice), and undying affection. We are one. We are inseparable by geography. We touch the faces of those who are emotionally and spiritually closest to us. This behavior is about utter devotion. It is not like a hug or grasping the shoulders of a friend. It is more intimate than a kiss on the cheek. It reaches us in a deeper place.
Touch is powerful—more powerful than we often imagine. I still remember a time in college when I was touched on the arm by a faculty member during my internship at the university counseling center. One day, I was standing in the hallway looking out a window near his office, as he was hustling by. In that moment, as he stepped into his office, he put his hand on my upper arm, squeezed gently, and said, “How you doing?” I can still feel the sensation on my arm and the feeling inside me forty years later. He touched a place in me, communicating something kinesthetically that moved me.
Touch is not an auxiliary form of communication meant to enhance words. It is primary and can result in immediate changes in how we think and behave. Couples who touch more tend to have higher relationship satisfaction. Children receive touch as the first form of communication in their lives. Yet the amount of touch we receive as we grow older diminishes, often dramatically.
Touching is a complicated matter in our current culture. So often we are afraid to touch one another, yet it is natural; and I hope the grandchildren will continue to accept the old country legacy of cradling the face. Perhaps as I grow older they will indulge me and continue to intuitively/kinesthetically understand my love and devotion without embarrassment.