Saturday, May 19, 2007

Three Little Words

May 19, 2007

In the new movie Georgia Rule, the stern mother played by Jane Fonda is confronted by her dysfunctional daughter (Felicity Hoffman).

"You never said you loved me."

Fonda's retort, "Well, my parents never said it."

"And you knew they did how?"

"I didn't."

This must be as unfathomable to a person in his or her 40's as it would have been unfathomable to our parents that they should constantly reassure us with those three little words. I couldn't help but think Ms. Fonda connected with the line through experiences with her own father, whom she almost seemed to be channeling in her performance in this wonderful little film.

I have always been astonished to hear grown women choked up because their fathers never told them they loved them. My father never did. My mother never did either -- although I know she took it upon herself to reassure my little brother, and often, that my father loved him. I suppose he had confided in her that he suspected that our father didn't love him -- but I wonder how he could possibly have believed it, coming from her. Why didn't she tell Daddy to say it? Did she? Did he actually refuse? All those scenarios are possible.

The most loving person in my family, our surrogate grandmother (actually our mother's aunt), clearly loved all us children deeply. But I never heard her say it.

How did we know it, then?

When I remember that little lady with her long white hair wrapped neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck, when I remember the sparkle in her brown eyes and the sound of her solicitous and gentle voice, when I cherish the memory of her bringing stacks of comic books to us, those cast off by her younger brothers -- in their 70's -- her wicked smile when she said things like "I like Buck Jones, don't you?" -- even the minor memories of her make me feel enveloped in warmth. I remember her cooking, her generosity, her pleasant and optimistic way of embracing life, her old-fashioned, churchgoing ways, and I know the love I felt was going both ways.

I think you "know" love through other means than auditory. Saying "I love you" doesn't mean you never have to say you're sorry. It doesn't even mean you love. Hearing someone say it when it's clearly felt at the moment -- and it's the moment you want to hear it -- is a high point in life, unforgettable and even cataclysmic. It cannot be beckoned or begged into existence. But I have lived through enough relationships to promise you this: It does happen.

Parents today seem to tell their children they love them all the time. Maybe they overdo it; maybe they are right and our parents were wrong. I really don't know. But I do know that it's different.


mellow drama said...

I hope we agree that love is a virtue, and "being loved" is desired over "not being loved". How would a child know they are loved if they are not told often and frequently? You offer your own experience that they somehow figure it out without being told in so many words. This ability to recognize the emotional quality in an action speaks to the divine nature of the child, and not to any laudable characteristic in the parent. Children are parented because they need to be taught. The family is built upon the idea that a parent is the best teacher. I offer your own upbringing and your own hesitation to speak those words as evidence that the teaching works.

You may be suggesting that overuse of these three words blunts their impact. I suggest it doesn't. Generally the last thing said in my household at night is "I love you." Often either child will say this as they are drifting off to sleep, and often in the middle of the night I hear a kid stir, only to say in their sleepy voice, "Dad? I love you." As often as not my response is "Thank you". Because that's what I feel at the time.

Speaking for myself: I can't imagine hearing those words from my children without feeling...loved. As you said, "Hearing someone say it when it's clearly felt at the moment -- and it's the moment you want to hear it -- is a high point in life, unforgettable and even cataclysmic." I couldn't agree more. I guess it's just my happy lot to get to agree more often.

And not to seem overly felicitous...but it's Huffman, not Hoffman.

Mary Lois said...

I certainly can't hold my family up as a perfect example of anything. But my point here, however feeble, is that it's a generational thing, and that a lot of what passes for love probably isn't. It bears examining and I'm probably not going to change any minds because the issue is so personal. I grew up in a time and place when emotions were not on the surface and not thought of as a virtue, even the good ones. They just existed. They were there to be tamed.

I don't know that overuse of the words blunts their impact, but on the other hand I don't think the words are important in experiencing the emotions. My own battle once was to experience emotions (threatening ones) at all. Love was the easy one, and I used to say the three words often -- I must admit, too often. There is such a thing as that -- although not with kids.

That's a beautiful picture of love as a night-night. I never had it and can't say what it would be like.

I hope Ms. Huffman will forgive the typo. I could correct it, but that would render your criticism too confusing for my readers.

sinjap said...

having just spent the last week in the local intensive care unit holding my sister's hand after a head on collision, all i can say is actions speak louder than words...i know it's cliche but it really is true, whether it's romantic love, sibling love or parent-child love...though we've had a touch and go relationship over the years (in fact i hadn't spoken to her in over a year when this happened), we're still family...maybe it's a southern thing or a country thing, but no matter how you feel about your family you still love them...and you show up in their hospital room and hold their hand...and you never have to say those three little words

and yes, it is a generational parents were never lovey-dovey to us but we never doubted their love for a second

and by the way, she's gonna be ok, thanks!

Bert said...

How could the two generations agree on what a normal relationship between parents and children?

"Normal" is such a slippery concept.

The person who can write me a prescription for guaranteed universal happiness has a shot at keeping my attention when they try to tell me how to live my life.

mellow drama said...


I agree. Different strokes for different folks. One ring I'd toss at the universal happiness prize though is to love without reservation. As often and in whatever ways feel appropriate. If loving has a downside, I haven't yet experienced it.

Bert said...

Mellow Drama, two words: unrequited love. Loving the "wrong" thing or person has the potential for downside. But then I'm a cynic.

Mary Lois said...

Hmmm...bert, I almost wrote the same thing to mellow, who professes to know no down side to love -- but I thought better of it because I don't want anyone to know I've had a number of those "unrequited's" and didn't learn a lot from them, and am not certain there was really a reason for them. Not that it's a secret or anything...