One of the wonderful things about extended family is how normal they make you feel. I’ve always felt somewhat resentful that my family emigrated to Australia and left an extended network of family behind. Recently a cousin came to visit and it was wonderful to compare similarities, personality traits we can now attribute to genetics instead of feeling guilty about them.
Like me she still feels regret about things she did ten years ago. Simple things like forgetting to say thank you in a note to a relative or not saying what was on her mind at a particular time. We both cannot be silent in the face of racism or sexism and our politics are on the left as is most of that side of the family. Yet I have been away from their influence since I was nine years old. When we speak up, we talk from emotion which gets us into to trouble because it sounds irrational. Even as words are pouring out we know they are coming from the felt meaning of things rather than an objective, scientifically reasoned point of view. So we have to take a deep breath and really search for that objective perspective which we know exists if our hearts would only just stop pounding and loudly drowning out our reasoned arguments. Like me we were both annoyed by our emotional selves but have come to accept it as part of our identity. That which makes us compassionate and full of empathy, also reduces us to tears just when we need to be stoic.
Its so comforting to see I am not alone. Because while I love my home and the man with whom I share it, the sandy beaches, the hot weather and all the comforts I have because we moved to a big brown land full of opportunity, family was a cost that I wonder was far too great.
While I can still remember the snow and feeling so cold my hands and feet were numb. Walking carefully on iced over pavements so as not to slip and break something. The brutal winters where it would be darkening as you were leaving school at 4 o’clock. The summers that would last a few days and then disappear forever into a miserable, rainy grey. I also remember once, when we ran outside at Christmas to see the snow fall, it looked like walking through falling archways of gold as the snow was illuminated by the street lamps. I can remember lazy sundays with cousins and grandparents after the roast lunch had been consumed and everyone sat around the fire to chat or watch tv. Are these the romanticised memories of a nine year old or a deeper longing for family.
Now I find myself alone on most Sundays, just me, the husband and the cat which is enough most of the time. But I long for family, and, with one set of parents at each end of the suburbs and each with a new set of families to contend with, I find myself often alone. If we had children we probably would have an extended network of other families with kids, but the childless couple are not an easy fit. And while we wait endlessly for the day we may be able to parent, its such a lonely road.
So seeing a cousin from back in England has left me with a longing for family. People you can call your own, without question. People who will not disappear because you’ve said the wrong thing but will stubbornly reappear and argue with you again at the next family gathering! People who share your blood so you can sagely nod when they reveal a misdemeanour, a personality quirk, a feeling, a silly mistake because you have done exactly the same thing at some stage. As I did when my cousin talked of conflicts with friends and coworkers, or laughed about an over reaction.
When we skyped a great Aunt and we laughed as we both held our indignant cats up to the camera, I realised how similar we were. She without children, with a love of cats, with an intolerance for too long in the company of strange others. But she has always regretted not having children. But even if her family were scattered, like mine from one end of the country to the other, in her part of the world they are never really far away. Here, huge deserted swathes of land and ocean separate us. I think I understand the tyranny of distance for the first time.
Now that my sister is dead I can no longer ring and tell her how I feel. I can no longer discuss what it is to be part of our family. Can’t laugh with her over our foolishness, can’t compare petty jealousies, cannot nurture her child because he is so far away and lacking the kind of connection to family that mothers ensure. That kind of distance is intolerable.
I spent my twenties trying to escape my family and now it’ s odd that what used to embarrass me and make me want to sever the bloodlines that bind us now make me smile, make me feel content to be part of something bigger albeit imperfect. Whatever will we do when a child from another country comes into our lives and we adopt them to satisfy our need to nurture another human being? We will have taken them away from family and their bloodlines. I hope we can make up for that. I worry whether we will we be too old and not around when they need us most. Will we be able later, to offer reconnection? Will the rest of our clan be adopted too? Will we be good for that child and will that child whisper away our loneliness with the promise of family? Is that selfish? Yes it is.
Will we do it anyway?