I’ve recently been reading some essays by Arthur Gordon (A Touch of Wonder, 1974). In one essay, “How Wonderful You Are,” he describes clearing out his elderly mother’s attic in Georgia. He and his sisters stumbled upon a trunk full of letters dating back to the American Civil War era.
“The people in those generations cared about one another, enormously and intimately. And they said so, with an emphasis that was perhaps naïve but was also deeply impressive. In a hundred different ways, they spoke of their love and admiration for one another, and you could feel their sincerity warm on the brittle paper:
You don’t know how much your visit meant to each of us! When you left, I felt as if the sun had stopped shining.
The courage with which you are facing your difficulties is an inspiration to all of us. We haven’t the slightest doubt that in the end you will triumph over all of them.
Have I told you lately what a wonderful person you are? Never forget how much your friends and family love and admire you.
How wonderful you are! That was the steady refrain, and it made me stop and think. In each of these people, no doubt, there had been much that could have been criticized. But when you remembered the times they had lived through – the war that ended for them in poverty and bitterness and defeat, the terrifying epidemics of yellow fever – it was impossible to escape the conclusion that the writers of these letters were stronger than we are – that they faced greater tests with greater fortitude. And where did they get that strength? The answer lay in my dusty hands. They got it from one another.”
This essay has made me reflect, once again, on the conundrum of expressing affection in my life here in Scotland. I know that when I first moved here, I hugged my friends much more often than I do now, for example. My hug reflex died away because Scottish people are rather shy, and a little bit goes a long way. They can also be hypersensitive to the kind of American gushiness that streams through to us in television programmes. I remember a Scottish friend telling me that she was appalled by hearing other parents at her son’s nursery say “I love you” to their children. She blamed it on the Americanisation of Scottish culture. I queried this with another Scottish friend, who confirmed that she had never heard her parents utter the words “I love you” in her life – but she knew beyond a doubt that they did.
However, I have also heard Aberdonians say “I love you” to their grown children, young children, and parents, over the years. (“Bye Mum, love you!”). And my friends do hug me here – not every single time I see them, in some cases, but it is heartfelt.
One thing (of many!) that I became self-conscious about when I moved here was my unthinking habit of closing my letters with “love”. For a while I felt this was too demonstrative and perhaps meaningless. But as time went on, I thought: no, this is one of the traditions I will hang on to. And so I do sign letters and e-mails (not always, but often) with “love”.
When I came across Arthur Gordon’s essay, I was interested to find that almost half a century ago, one American was lamenting the fact that his family had become far less explicit about their love for one another than in previous generations. Every family and every person is different in their degree of expressiveness. But the thing I come back to in my musings on the topic of affection is that it must be sincere. Nothing rings more hollow than the kind of sound-bite interactions we sometimes have, with expressions of affection that are pat and meaningless. If that’s what people object to, I agree.