Tuesday, 22 April 2008

You can't choose your family

It was the American novelist Ethel Watts Mumford who first wrote, ‘God gives us our relatives; thank god we can choose our friends.’

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today because I read a review for Steve Carrel’s latest movie, Dan In Real Life – it’s about, according to the advertising bumf, ‘loss, life and family’. It tells the story of how Dan (Steve) falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, and how this plays out during the annual family reunion – with, of course, the requisite happy ending (ho-hum). I appreciated 24.com reviewer Gugulethu Mkhabela’s wrap-line: ‘While it’s authentic enough, the cheesy and perfect ending brings you back to the reality that while this movie may look like real life, it’s not.’ Now, there’s someone who clearly knows families.

At one stage I numbered among those directly related to me (my family of origin plus in-laws) 1 husband, 2 children, 4 parents, 10 siblings and 12 nieces and nephews – 29 close relatives. Today, I can count who’s left on the fingers of one and a half hands: 2 children, 1 parent, 2 siblings (one of them an in-law), 1 niece and 1 nephew.

And no, most of my family weren’t wiped out in a cataclysmic disaster such as a tsunami or a train smash. Simply put: 1 died; 3 were lost to me after deeply traumatic disagreements (including an attempted lawsuit) and the other 18 were what is called in war ‘collateral damage’. It is, after all, impossible to maintain a relationship with, for example, a sibling who, for simple reasons of having taken sides in a stupid family spat, won’t respond to your phonecalls or emails.

Years ago, I remember a friend telling me, quite casually, that she hadn’t heard from her brother in years and didn’t, in fact, even know where in the world he was living. I was appalled: ‘How can you lose an entire member of your family?’ I asked her.

At the time, our family gatherings were near legendary. They happened quite often and usually there would be at least a dozen adults including friends, making food (if you were ‘the women’) or playing music or entertaining the kids or (if you were ‘the men’) watching sport on TV. The complement of children could be anything up to 15 with hangers-on, and spanned the ages from adorable babes-in-arms to sullen, metal-studded teenagers.

It hadn’t always been that way for me – I left home and moved to another city when I was 18, and had very little contact with my family other than my mother until eight years later, when I had my first child – but having found myself in the bosom of this large, rambunctious throng, it was simply unthinkable to me that my life could ever be any other way than filled with family.

Obviously, it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were frequent arguments, some more serious than others, but hey, we’d all finally pull ourselves together, have a little weep, and get on with things. That’s what families did, didn’t they?

Apparently not. According to the therapist I saw at the time of the first serious arguments, the cracks in my family were there from the start, and it took only one seismic shift – the death of our mother – to bring the whole edifice crashing down.

Now I realise how easy it is to lose family: all it takes is being judgmental (something my family were truly fabulous at) and a big fat dose of mutual disrespect. As Italian playwright Ugo Betti (who is of the same vintage as Ethel of the equally odd name, incidentally), ‘The family is the place where the most ridiculous and least respectable things in the world go on.’

So now my ‘family gatherings’ are modest affairs, orderly and civilised – and I can’t help but miss, occasionally, the furious disputes that used to erupt across the lunch table. (One I recall with particular fondness was a frustrated brother-in-law stating with angry certitude that ‘women might think they can multitask, but they can’t!’ – a dangerous thing to say, really, in a household containing three headstrong, opinionated sisters – ooh, did we have fun!)

And for my love, affirmation and support, I rely on my ‘other’ family: my wonderful, patient, helpful, eccentric – and loyal-to-the-death – friends. At least, when I argue with them, they don’t get their husbands to phone me the next day and crap on me, or sic lawyers on me.

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4 comments:

settledowndude said...

I can relate Murial. One sibling lost to Scientology, one to drugs, one to New Zealand (I'd choose the drugs myself) and the other to Grimsville, UK. And then there was one (she's ok - she has learned to cook lamb, late in life...from Juno's recipe) Its the Christmass thing that gets wierd , Turkey the size of an ostrich0 when there are only 4 of you.

Muriel said...

As sad as I am for you, settledowndude, at least I know I'm not alone. During the 8 yrs I didn't see my family, I used to have 'orphans' Christmases' -- invite everyone I knew who didn't have family (for whatever reason) for Christmas dinner. They were great parties. I think I'm going to reintroduce that tradition. You're invited.

settledowndude said...

Yay cyberfriends . The odds and ends parties always helped here as well, as my last remaining family had to behave a bit , and it dilutes the obnoxious ones. Other people are so very well behaved. An easier to avoid the skinny aunt who kissed with toungue Loved your dagga post.

Muriel said...

Gawd! I'm almost tempted to have a joint, just to get that awful image out of my mind! Yeeeuccch!