My oldest daughter is ten years old. She has reached the age where she feels obligated to gently rebel against her parents in order to assert her nascent independence, like any normal, healthy child. To my dismay, her tool for testing the waters of adolescence has been to forbid me from kissing her. Our family has had a good-night ritual for most of the years she and her sister have been alive. We read together as a family, and then each of us, my husband and I, tote one of the girls to bed (this part is optional now because Katie does, after all, weigh 70 pounds!), we tuck them in, give them a hug and a kiss, and then pass each other in the hall as we repeat the ceremony with the other child.
At some point, Katie made it known to me that the kiss portion of this routine was no longer allowed. I would thereafter be invited to carry her (ha!), tuck her in, hug her goodnight - even share a quiet conversation about the day just passed or the next to come - but I was prohibited from kissing her sweet curly head as I enclosed her in my arms. Being a creature of habit, and lulled by her lovely daughterliness, I sometimes forgot the cruel rule. Burying my face in the hair on top of her head during our good-night hug, the small smacking press of my lips in the dark gave me away. My punishment would be no hug the next night.
At one point, I was carrying a balance of 21 nights without hugs because of my petulant insistence on kissing her. Somehow, I could not draw forth the required discipline. My lips were right there, next to her soft, apple cheek. I couldn't resist.
The human lips are said to have more nerve endings than any other part of the body. Within the brain, they are connected with both the language and emotional centers and with the part that controls the fingertips, thus combining communication, inspiration and discovery in a way no other part of the body does. No wonder kissing is such a phenomenon.
During a particularly jaded time during my college years, I considered romantic kissing between a man and a woman as a way for the man to commandeer the woman's attention, distract her, and block her vision long enough for him to remove a few pieces of her clothing. While this may actually be true for many fraternity boys, I also remember the overwhelming wonder I experienced as a girl, passing my lips over the smooth, warm face of my high-school sweetheart. More delicate than fingers brushing aside his hair and more intimate than cheeks touching during the slow song at the high school dance, I unabashedly explored him from ear to ear and from chin to eyelid with soft, inquiring lips. Regardless that we were standing in the parking lot of Winchell's Donut Shop in broad daylight with cars coming and going all around us, I thought it was the most romantic thing I had even experienced.
My first actual kiss, however, was a terrible disappointment. I was 13. I had a wild crush on Martin. It was Halloween and we were much too old to be out trick-or-treating. But, being at the age where one tries desperately to have his cake and eat it too, we were children for the free candy, but adult enough to foray into the world of sexual relationships. Or at least he was, and he brought me along.
Martin had invited his two buddies, and my sisters also came out with us. On one of the darker, shadowy streets, Martin's friends suddenly seemed to rush ahead, driving the girls forward at a quick step, but Martin slowed down to a snail's pace. We must have been holding hands, because I was already embarrassed, but suddenly he stopped and turned towards me. My heart was racing. I was dressed as a street-walker or some other terribly inappropriate costume for a girl who had just started menstruating maybe a month before. This boy was the most exciting and lovely boy in the school as far as I was concerned. He was intriguing, smart, sassy, tough and scrawny in a totally sexy way. He had heard I had a crush on him. He and his friends had devised this plan. He was kissing me! Through the thick makeup and around the tacky jewelry, his lips were touching mine. His tongue was reaching inside my unpractised mouth. And all I could think about was...slugs!
I had had a often-repeated nightmare about slugs, millions of them crawling over every square inch of space, coming over the fence at my grandmother's house, slowly teeming like a swarm of locusts, moving at a snail's (ha ha) pace! It was a terrifying dream. And the underside of a tongue - the part visible when you lift it up to touch the tip of your nose - looks like a slug. Or at least I imagined it so at that moment.
So, as his tongue swished around between my tight jaws, I relived the childhood nightmare. The slugs had made it past the fence, past the apple tree and I was frozen, riveted to the ground as they slimed their way up my body and into my mouth. Poor Martin. He might have been a good kisser - I couldn't say.
There have been a number of uncomfortable kisses in my life. The old, lecherous, great-uncle, obviously enjoying himself far more than acceptable as he kissed my ten-year-old cheek and patted my young rump. The out-of-touch stepfather who thought it was funny to slip in a little tongue once in awhile as a surprise. Even the most important kiss of my life - my wedding day "You May Kiss the Bride" kiss - was performed in front of an audience of 200. My husband and I felt called upon to make it intimate, yet fit for public consumption, poignant, but not too sloppy. I think we rehearsed it beforehand.
Kissing might seem like a modern cultural invention. No one imagines cavemen and cavewomen kissing like Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. But passionate, erotic kissing can feel instinctual and animalistic - like eating, consuming, inhaling. You want to inhabit your lover's body, sustain it, feed it and be fed by it. During lovemaking, kissing connects and attaches you to your lover above, just as below. Highly sensitive lips touching and exploring during emotionally charged moments makes perfect sense, even before homo sapiens and their social rules got so complicated (poor Scarlet).
Even kissing babies is instinctual. What mother doesn't nuzzle her young? Cows do it, cats do it, even kangaroos and rats do it. Pushing ones lips against a small, warm, soft body that you are hormonally programmed to love is a natural proclivity. That spot right under the baby's ear and right above her neck - the spot vampires also gravitate towards - is like a bullseye for mothers, aunties and grandmas. I have kissed, snuggled and caressed this spot with my mothering lips too many times to count. What joy it brings!
Growing up, I don't remember a lot of kissing in my family. It always kind of grossed me out to see other teenagers' mothers kissing them (especially on the lips - a custom that still gives me the willies). But now that I am a mother myself, I can't imagine NOT kissing and hugging my girls. That is why Katie's ban on kissing was such a blow. I enjoy kissing her. It demonstrates my affection for her and my willingness to support her emotionally. And it just feels good.
I toed the line for 3 months. I respected the proclamation. I followed her rule (sometimes I negotiated a kiss before she slept over at a friend's house to make up for the hug I would miss that night). And then, one night, I heard it - the sound of smacking lips! A kiss!
My husband, tucking Katie in, said goodnight, hugged her and... gave her a kiss!
I said, "Wait a minute!"
"What?" said Katie.
"How come Daddy gets to kiss you and I don't?" My voice was booming with mock anger. "What kind of a trick have you been playing on me? All these months I haven't been allowed, but Daddy has? That's not fair!"
The silence seemed to indicate that I had gained an advantage. I decided to make my own proclamation: "From now on, since Daddy gets to kiss you, I get to kiss you too!"
And she didn't argue.