You might think that there’s nothing more to say about former Vice President Joe Biden and the touchy-feely behavior that makes some women “uncomfortable,” but that’s only because you didn’t know my Aunt Helen.
Aunt Helen lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in a third-floor walk-up apartment that was cluttered and dusty and smelled of cheese danish and challah. She was about 4 feet 2 and weighed in at about 150 pounds, but that’s just in my memory, which may be unreliable. I was a little girl when we visited her every month. My mother insisted on the visits because Aunt Helen was Grandpa Morris’s older sister, and Grandpa was dead and his brother was in an asylum, so she was the go-to elder in the family.
We took a bus, walked another hundred miles and then trudged up the endless stairs in the shadowy old building. Aunt Helen was always there at the top of the stairs, planted in her doorway. She locked eyes with me and shifted from leg to leg, blocking the entrance. No matter how I ducked and bobbed, she held her ground.
There was nowhere to run. She’d grab me by both cheeks, paralyzing my facial muscles so that I was totally immobilized. Then she’d go in for the kill, pulling my face toward hers and planting a big wet kiss on my lips. Talk about uncomfortable.
Yes, why don’t we? My sister and I told our mother that we dreaded the kiss and, even more, the death grip on our faces, but Mom said we had to realize that our visit was the only light in Aunt Helen’s life with Uncle Hymie, and she would be deeply hurt if we pushed away her gesture of affection.
I know, it wasn’t a P.C. message to tell kids they had to go along with physical contact they didn’t want. Somehow, though, I grew up knowing the difference between being tolerant of Aunt Helen and smacking the guy who groped me in the movie theater when I was 12. I hit him upside the head with my Il Bisonte handbag with the metal studs, and he crept away like the pervert he was.
The Joe Biden brouhaha is overblown. There may be many reasons why he should and shouldn’t be president of the United States, but his affectionate demeanor isn’t a factor for me. You just have to watch the guy in crowds to see that he loves people and likes to make contact, and embraces everyone, and does it all with good humor and a self-deprecating sense of self.
Still, I think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi probably got it right when she said it isn’t about his good intentions, but rather about how women have perceived his gestures of affection. They said something. He said he gets it. I get it.
My guess is that Biden, who is 76, was surprised to learn that some women found his hugging offensive. My dad called female wait staff and secretaries “darling” or “dear.” He meant to be friendly, although we now know that this familiarity can be patronizing. We can learn and change and move along without an issue becoming what the Biden moment has become: a hyped-up bit of political theater.
Through the years, until she died, Aunt Helen maintained her post in her apartment doorway like an NFL linebacker. We dragged ourselves up the stairs for the monthly visit and endured her kisses. It was OK. We learned that her feelings had to be considered along with our sense of comfort in the moment. That wasn’t a terrible thing, and it didn’t stop us from maturing into assertive women. We know the difference between molestation and an unwelcome hug.
I bring up my encounters with Aunt Helen because they fall into that middle ground where you don’t quite know what to do. Do you hurt an old woman’s feelings because her kisses feel icky? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule for human behavior. Between and among adults, it seems safe to say that if it feels uncomfortable, speak up. But let’s keep a sense of proportion, along with a sense of humor, in our interactions.
I would definitely have backed Aunt Helen in a scrimmage with Uncle Joe, although it would have been highly inappropriate, and Uncle Hymie surely would have protested. Aunt Helen would have planted a wet one right on the former veep’s lips.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.