By Julie Gagnon Prior
“As an advocate, Julie Gagnon Prior has had to give a lot of hugs. She didn’t hug much before she got sick, she said, but now hugs are her greeting of choice — fierce, warm squeezes that she administers with all her might.”
This quote is the opening lines of a feature (about the calendar) in Seven Days, by Sabine Poux written June of this year.
Had a journalist written about me in my earlier years, the quote would have been alarmingly different.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties, hugs weren’t a common practice in my family. I am not sure if this was a sign of the times or if it was just a personality trait of my family.
I came from a family of eight, and the only one I remember hugging me on a regular basis was my brother Bob (who lives in North Hero).
For this piece of writing, I asked him why he hugged me so much.
He explained, “when we lived on the river and you were 1 and I was about 5, you knocked over my block tower. I yelled, and you cried. I knelt down and hugged you, and you stopped crying. I decided right then I never wanted to make my little sister cry again.”
The hugs from Bob continued. During the school year, he gave me a hug every morning before he walked out the door to catch the bus. Then again, every afternoon when he returned home he gave me another. This is one of my memories from childhood that makes me just relax and smile softly but oh so warmly. It’s a memory that brings me peace, strength, and pride.
Unfortunately, when I started school myself, I learned that hugs weren’t always positive. One confusing hug was when a relative pushed me away because I was too excited and hugged too hard. I had hurt her.
More confusion came when another relative pushed me away and said that I was too old to be hugging: a concept that really threw me for a loop.
The real kicker that stopped me from hugging whenever I could (without being rude) came from the news of the arrest of a school bus driver in Jericho. My family had moved from Jericho to Essex Center the summer before I started fourth grade. I don’t remember exactly when I heard the news, but I do exactly remember how it made me feel: confused, angry, embarrassed and afraid. See, the bus driver who was arrested was my bus driver for grades 1 through 3. Luther was his name, and he always made me feel so special. At the holidays he had a five gallon white bucket full of candy for the kids. But for me, I could get candy every day of the school year if I gave him a hug. As an innocent, naïve, little kid, I believed I was extra special and being rewarded for being a good girl. To this day these memories make me feel sick to my stomach.
Not hugging for the years after moving to Essex really wasn’t a very difficult task. Back in those days a very large percentage of Vermonters weren’t huggers. Emotions and gestures of affection were guarded commodities. Heck, even when my dad walked me down the aisle to give me away in marriage, he turned to me and shook my hand. And I was good with that.
Having kids brought out a lot of hugs in me. But, heavy sigh, I do wish that I had hugged them so much more… When relatives started getting terminally ill and passing, I stepped up my hugging game another level. Whether they be hugs of joy or hugs of sadness, each hug seemed to melt another layer of hardness off my heart. Me being older and the world being warmer, I began to expose myself with more vulnerability, trust and faith in others.
Interestingly enough, a by-product of my personal growth resulted in an increase in hugs of those around me. I think that observing this phenomenon increased my curiosity and appreciation in the true magic of an embrace.
Now, add to this equation a chronic illness. The result, for me, is an unhindered, unweathering drive to spread the healing beauty of hugs.
Like learning anything, there is an element of trial and error. My own personal effort to learn to accept and spread hugs has had its share of shameful, uncomfortable failures. I learned the hard way that I need to remember that not everyone is comfortable with or enjoys hugs. It’s ironic that I would forget this at times considering my own past. But yeah, I have offended and upset people by assuming that they would enjoy a hug. I am so very sorry for those situations, and now I always ask, “would you like a hug?” or, “are you a hugger?”
I have to admit, I now really do love hugs. I love giving them to people who enjoy them or need them. And I really appreciate people who go out of their way to give me a hug.
Hugs make my mouth smile…but they also make my eyes, heart and soul smile too.
Yup, hugs and smiles. That is where its at. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she