Hopefully we hear the phrase, “I love you” as children and we warm to the words. They nurture us and give us a place to feel we belong. And so we learn at a very young age to repeat them, and the response we get encourages special feelings in both speaker and listener.
When we say those three words to a very young child, he or she will silently absorb the hugs that accompany them, the warm and tender feelings, the safety of the relationship and the trust and understanding that they are important and valued individuals.
But the communication works both ways. Just yesterday as I was babysitting for our 2- and 5-year-old grandchildren. Jayden, the eldest, climbed into my lap and for no reason I could determine, put her arms around me and said “I love you, Memaw.” A gush of happiness and gratitude overwhelmed me.
With age the words may remain the same, but the situation changes. Teenagers give and receive affection in ways that are different from a small child. Privacy becomes important. And as adults to our adolescents, we tend to more silently savor the feeling and communicate it by our actions more than by our words. We love and trust them to try new things. We show our pride in them by encouraging them to stretch and grow. And when we help and empower them, they can recognize our feeling of love often without the words being spoken. But still in those intimate moments when it feels appropriate, we repeat the words that bind us to one another and tell our teens what they mean to us.
However somewhere along the way to our children’s adulthood, something changed in our family and I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it happened when the kids grew up and left our home to go to work or college, and then establish their own homes and families. Perhaps when separated by physical distance, we all felt the need to reinforce the ties that bind us. Perhaps the empty nest encouraged the words being spoken.
I can’t tell you when it happened or why, but whenever we speak with each other on the phone, we end our conversation saying “I love you” before hanging up. It almost has come to be a rote phrase, but each of us always repeats it.
I’ve heard and seen strangers do the same thing on the phone – in supermarkets, airports and many other public places – so I know we’re not alone in this ritual. And I’ve given thought as to why people do this.
Is it in case we may never see each other again, in case something happens to one or the other of us? Is it because separated by distance and unable to touch each other in loving ways, we need to reassure one another of that feeling? Or is it because we want those we love to be reminded that they are so valued.
In truth I think the reason we may choose to do this is not really important. What matters is that whether hearing or speaking “I love you,” the words give our heart a home.
Freelance writer Judy Kramer can be reached by email at [email protected] She is author of “Changing Places: A Journey with My Parents into Their Old Age.”