The Family Gathering
My auntie told me that her brother, my uncle, was coming up from Sydney for a visit. Recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my uncle wanted to see relatives while he still could recognise them and hold a meaningful conversation. His daughter would be driving him. I hadn’t seen my uncle for about 6 years - a brief meeting at a family funeral - and it was possibly 20 years since I had seen my uncle’s wife and my cousin.
I put the date on my calendar and wondered what on earth we could talk about. Apart from catching up with the latest developments in my life – not much at all, really – there would be a dearth of dialogue, I thought.
Families are strange things. In many cases the only thing that binds them together is the blood connection and the shared history. As adults we grow up and apart, developing independent identities and finding friends who are more like us than the family unit we’ve left behind. Is there any other reason to hang out with family sometimes, other than the simple fact that it is ‘Family’ – a circumstance that obligates us to each other?
The day rolled around when I felt I should visit the Sydney rellies, and I made the trip to their holiday house, rented in town. When I saw my cousin, the woman who I’d last seen as a girl, I was suddenly hit with the reality that this was my Family.
As we chatted and reacquainted ourselves, I grew more comfortable with being there. My uncle demonstrated a gentle demeanour in spite of his forgetfulness and difficulty in placing names and faces. My cousin reminded me of my sister, with her big brown eyes and long dark hair and expressive face. Her smile and friendliness endeared me to her, and yet really, she was a stranger to me apart from my knowledge of her. I’d had a few emails and a chat on the phone - but I have old high school friends that I keep in better contact with than that.
Still, there was something more – a trust that we could be ourselves and share family secrets and know there was an acceptance and willingness to learn about each other, and grow closer together. I wondered if there were better situations anywhere that one could be immediately welcomed such as this.
The next day we met up again with more relatives who’d made the trip down from Brisbane. The local Stanthorpe mob was there as ‘hosts’ for a family trip to the old home property, and amidst the preparations, more stories were shared. Old photos were passed around, people gathered for new group shots, and tall tales were told of various adventures that were experienced by the family.
I had wondered if we would have anything to talk about apart from the past. But in our growing up and away from our history, our backgrounds have subtly shaped our futures. My own mother’s dementia journey gave me empathy for my cousins who were experiencing similar struggles with their aging parents. The harsh upbringing of our parents, and their humble victories over past torments have softened our hearts towards their difficult needs now.
I asked my hubby the next day whether he thought there was some mystical bond that keeps family units together. He was of the opinion that we put up with our families often just ‘because we have to’. But that in itself, became a deeper answer. Unlike our friends who we choose - because we like them and find them easy to get along with - our family is the place where we are forced to get along, even though it is hard and we would prefer to be with people who perhaps don’t know all our failings and history.
The family is that group of strangely familiar people with annoying characteristics that remind us too much of ourselves or our parents. The family is that learning environment where we have to reach into our conversational bag of tricks to find things to talk about when we haven’t seen each other for years and don’t know what we have in common.
But like a group of people stranded on a desert island, we find that it is best for our survival if we learn to accept each other. Rather than staying in our comfort zone of being with people we choose, we can place ourselves back in the family unit where we can learn to tolerate, or maybe even enjoy, that rellie who tells the same old stories again and again. Perhaps we can appreciate the cranky old fella who has the dark past and yet smiles and permits the children to squeal and tear around the verandah with their toy trucks.
I wonder if there is more to family than we know… some inner yearning placed within us to connect and belong in a place where ‘iron sharpens iron’ and where our hardest railings against those who grate against us will be transformed into a digging in of our foundations. Where we will be embedded and secured against strangers and those who would dare to question us.
We are built for relationships. Our greatest hurts arise out of broken relationships; betrayed trusts and a lack of forgiveness. Perhaps our desires to find identity in our human family stems from a deeper urge to define who we are in the grand scheme of the universe and what our impact will be after we’ve gone. We all want to believe that we are ‘someone special’ – that someone else will accept us and forgive us and have faith in us.
And we are special. Some of us just haven’t realised it yet.