When you have little kids, you hold their hands for everything. For comfort, for direction, for control, for safety. As they get older and more independent it becomes less of a constant thing. There's less of the automatic seeking by parent or child for the other's hand and it becomes more of a choice, more of a desire for contact and reassurance.
I knew when my guys got older that holding hands would be one of the things I would miss about their being little. I've had a recurring, vivid dream which has stuck with me. Riley is holding my hand as I lay, very old, in bed. His hand is large and angular, warm, muscular yet bony in that man-hand sort of way that many men have. My hand is old and the skin is wrinkled and worn, and I know I am near my end. He's just sitting with me, holding my hand, and I don't know if he even realizes that I know what he's doing. One of the first times I had this dream, I woke up with that odd sense of time wrapping in a loop around me and I got up and went and held his little hand while he was in the upper bunk bed in their room, and he squeezed my hand back, reflexively, and I savored the feel his angular little bony hand in mine. I tried to imprint that sensation in my brain for later, because even then we were reaching a stage where hand-holding wasn't as everyday a thing as it had been.
So now they are thirteen, fast approaching fourteen, and any physical contact has become a much rarer thing, since they need their space to become more independent. They still hug me, which I'm incredibly grateful for, but hand-holding is right out, too babyish, too weird now to even contemplate.
Little kids hold hands with other kids without thinking; they hold hands with a buddy to cross the street, to line up, just because they're friends and they feel close. But at some point when we mature holding hands turns to different meanings; you hold hands when you're early in the dating process, maybe, you hold hands with your partner sometimes when you're walking together. Hand-holding is considered a public display of affection and can be fraught with meaning and consequences if you're holding hands with someone of the same gender in an unfriendly place. You don't ever just hold hands with good friends, at least in this American culture; it would be really weird.
We shake hands, a brief hand-holding gesture, to greet formally, or seal a deal, to demonstrate a public acknowledgement of contact and willingness to be friends. Shaking hands seems to be disappearing as a social gesture, at least out here in more casual California, and in some ways it's a shame, since it's hard not to look someone in the eyes when you shake hands and acknowledge that they are a real person with feelings.
In services of various sorts, church, funerals, weddings maybe, we might join hands for a final prayer or special words, and everyone forms a link in a chain or a circle of hands being held. You end up holding hands with people you might not even know, or know only slightly, and in that context it's all right. You can learn a lot about a person just by holding their hand; hands tell so many things about us that we aren't even aware of on a conscious level; age, warmth, strength, profession, friendliness, a willingness to squeeze your hand back in an acknowledgement that you've just shared a small connection. Forming that larger bond of community is one of the few places and times we're allowed to just hold hands with anybody and have it be an uncomplicated good thing. It's a powerful feeling when done as a group after a shared experience, and it helps form bonds and sprout seeds of potential friendships. It's a good thing that seems to happen too rarely. I occasionally get to hold my boys' hands when we're at church or in a group now, and I can feel how much their hands have grown and how strong they've become in a way that I don't realize during day-to-day life. It makes me wistful for when holding their hands was a regular thing, and aware of how much they've grown.
We hold a friend's hand, briefly, probably, when trying to comfort them in times of extremity. I've held hands with Dave, walking, to help be his guide since he can't see, and it's always been a pleasure to just hold hands and walk and talk with him, though it does require a bit of attention to not get distracted by the talking so much that I run him into light poles or off curbs and such. Holding hands and walking with Dave is a pleasure shared by his many friends, rather like being a part of a secret club; we get the pleasure of walking and holding hands again with a friend like when we were little kids, and more than a few of us have missed that simple bonding in our adult lives.
I remember when our friend Caroline was in the hospital in her last few days, it was just kind of tacitly agreed upon by the varied people visiting and staying with her that we would take turns holding her hand so that she would know there was always someone there with her, even though we didn't know if she really felt it or realized; at that point she was in a coma. We did it more for ourselves, really, holding her hand. I sat there holding her hand then and wondered why I'd never actually held her hand while she was conscious, awake, aware, and still her own witty, observant self, why I'd never held her hand even after she was diagnosed when we visited, while she was still joking around even though she knew how serious it all was.
What is it with these social conventions,these strictures, that hold us back from just reaching out and holding someone's hand? It's such a simple, easy gesture, it's comforting, it demonstrates an uncomplicated love. We use it without even pausing to think at the beginnings and endings of life. Why do we have to limit it so much in the middle of our lives?