We are family

A few weeks ago, my mother turned 75, and, as is typical for my family, this milestone was celebrated in a very low-key fashion, with immediate family (those of us who were in the country), 8 of us in total, having dinner at the local pub, in the small country town where my parents live.

This is my parents’ style. My parents have never held, or hosted, a large event for anyone’s 18th, 21st, 30th, or anything else, and in keeping with their example, nor have any of us organised or hosted an event for our parents’ milestone wedding anniversaries or birthdays. (I’ve organised a total of 2 parties for my own birthdays: my 21st and my 40th – my 21st was a friends-only affair with a lot of students and cheap beer, held in the shared terrace-house in Fitzroy that I lived in at that time, and my 40th was a very casual affair for friends and close family.)

Thinking over that dinner,  I realise that, coincidentally, 8 is the same number of people that sat around the dining-room table at meals all through my childhood.  The 8 in question back then comprised of my parents, myself, my younger sister, and my four younger brothers.

After my youngest brother was born, and there were now 6 kids to fit around the table, my parents had to upgrade from the small laminex table in the kitchen to a large, 8-seater laminex table in the dining room. (Up to that point I’m guessing we fitted 6 around the table and put the baby on a corner in a high chair).

At this time, we were each given a designated place at the table, in a strategy basically designed to minimise fighting between the older boys. My sister and I, opposite one another in the middle, and our parents at the ends, had the four boys  placed in-between each of us, in an attempt to keep them as far apart as possible. Crucially, the two older boys, the most likely to sock one another in the face at a moment’s notice, were at diagonally opposite corners – about as far apart as they could be while still at the same table!

However, no arrangement was fool-proof, and like a carefully planned game of noughts-and-crosses that goes awry, it was clear that there were flaws in this strategy, as it meant that although no boys were next to one another, each boy faced directly opposite another boy. Oh dear.

For all the planning that went into the seating arrangement, I’m pretty sure our dinners were not entirely free from the occasional heated name-calling or punch-up session – although these were more likely to occur when Dad was not home, and result in poor old Mum’s familiar admonishment: “You wait until I tell your father!”.

*

In 2014, the people missing from the arrangement around the table at Mum’s birthday dinner were my sister Cupcake,* who now lives in Ireland,  my youngest brother, Pickles,* who was temporarily in the Phillippines for work, and our brother Jeronimo,* who died 2 and a half years ago. Making the numbers up in their absence were my partner, my daughter, and my brother’s wife.

When I think of only 8 of us, coming together for mum’s 75th, I feel a bit sorry for my parents. They’ve never been into large events for the sake of show, but as staunch Catholics, my parents obediently followed the command to go forth and multiply, and produced 6 children. They place a great deal of importance on the idea of “family” and they must have felt that, having done their bit, it was not unreasonable to hope that if we followed their example, they might have approximately 36 grandchildren by the time they were in their mid-70s. Instead, they have 1 grandchild. Of their 6 children, only two are in long term relationships. One has passed away. This can’t be anything like what they pictured for the future of their family.

It seems that, despite all their early efforts, the next generation has let them down in the “go forth and multiply” game. They have gained only one new blood relative, and that small gain is neutralised by the fact that another family member was cruelly subtracted (gained: 1 grandchild, lost: 1 son). After 45 years of marriage and a lot of effort on their part, the total pool of “immediate family” that visits at Christmas, and attends birthday dinners (when able to), has increased by a measley 2 – the inlaws: my partner, and my brother’s wife.

They have never complained about this, although I’m sure it must be a disappointment to them. Whatever my parents may think about the failure on the part of their children to continue to multiply, they’ve never once pressed me about why I didn’t have another child. (Once, my mother asked me, hesitantly, if I thought I might have another child. But she never pressed that subject.) As far as I know, they’ve never pressed any of my siblings about not having children, or a partner. They keep their thoughts on these topics to themselves.

*

The last time I ever sat around the dining table at my parents’ with that strict configuration of seating still in place must have been about 20 years ago now.

By the time about 4 of us had moved out of home, it became rare for us to all be home at the same time, and then new people (my partner, then my daughter, and now my brother’s wife), became a part of the seating arrangement. Myself and my siblings would come and go at different times, sometimes not able to cross paths at Christmas or Easter due to differing work schedules or obligations to the families of in-laws, one sibling went through a long period of rarely bothering to show up for celebratory meals anyway, one sibling lives in another country and can’t very often be there for dinner, and one sibling has recently passed away. When it comes to sitting around the table at my parents place, nowadays whoever happens to be there for a meal can take a seat anywhere.

In any case, these days the table is in a different position.

 

*

*Not their real names – my parents were strict Catholics and there are no saints called Cupcake, Jeronimo or Pickles, at least to my knowledge.

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Take a good look at my face

Weekly Writing Challenge: DNA Analysis

Your challenge is to take something intensely personal — the bits and pieces that make you YOU — and use them as a springboard for a post that makes a larger point and resonates with lots of other readers.

Ok, so – what makes me, me?

Ugh! As soon as I ask myself that question I want to stop right there.

When I read the Daily Post’s take on this prompt, it seemed challenging and interesting, but now that I’ve set myself the challenge, and am staring at myself, metaphorically (and literally – at the photo I just took on my phone) it feels horribly cringey. It’s like the kind of excercise in navel-gazing that we did at high school in Year 11 Religious Education classes at the Catholic School I went to.

Why do I suddenly find it so irksome? I do indeed spend time mulling over my own character, my shortcomings, and even my strengths, but this challenge asks me to make a massive leap – from mulling introspectively, to reviewing my character traits on the internet. I am not quite ready for that!

The other approach, as suggested by the Daily Post, is to analyse the physical attributes I’ve been handed down from previous generations. That’s hard too: for those of us living in Western, First World countries, our sense of self identify is shaped, to varying degrees, around our physical appearance. For women in particular, this is overtly effected by the very high proportion of the women we see on TV, in the media, in ads, and in movies. These are invariably the thinnest and most attractive specimens available for the salary on offer.

I’m adequately aware of the game that is being played, and rationally, I know it’s not true that because I don’t look like a Hollywood movie star, I am not a worthwhile person – yet despite all of that, I have internalised a standard that I measure my own appearance against and the verdict always screams, “horribly imperfect!

So it’s difficult to write honestly about my sub-par appearance.

I prefer not to look at photos of myself in social situations. It’s almost guaranteed to bring down my mood. Just last night I was celebrating with work colleagues after the end of 3 weeks of hard work at a festival, and some people started taking photos on their phones. Like everyone else, I was high from exhaustion combined with relief and champagne. I was in a pretty good mood, so I happily joined in on posing for photos – but when phones were passed around for photo viewing, I passed them on without looking. No need to be brought down to earth with a jolt.

I realise this response is ridiculous. Isn’t that vanity about my own appearance causing me to overlook the spirit of the occasion? For another thing, there is nothing seriously wrong with my physical appearance, except that high internal standard, against which, I come off about a gazillion miles short.

My features come together to make a face that I sometimes find acceptable in the mirror, but in photos it’s always caught in an unchecked moment – whether smiling, laughing, talking, or staring at a camera, in my biased opinion, it suffers greatly when I’m not able to construct my features into something that I deem acceptable. I may be laughing, but all I see is an extra chin, or that my face looks as round as a basketball. I may be smiling, but I just focus on the fact that I’ve been caught in a half-blink and look crazy. I’m caught on a side profile and that, of course, serves to highlight my turned-up nose. My hair is never satisfactory. The whole picture is never satisfactory.

But now, I’m alone, looking at the photo of myself I just took on my phone, staring back at myself. I have no makeup on, and the first thing that strikes me is that I look tired, and older than I usually care to acknowledge. The furrow in the middle of my forehead stands out, making it look like I frown easily. Well, I probably do.

I probably learned to frown a lot from a young age. My parents were unusually strict and repressive when I was a child, and they had 6 children, which meant a steady stream of naughtiness, and it was probably a daily occurence for one of us to be in trouble and for me to witness angry parental raised voices and frowning. In my memory, they frowned quite a lot. I suspect that, in turn, I frowned a lot too, as a symptom of living in that environment.

As I’ve grown older that furrow has probably deepened – staring at it now, I’m reminded of some of the characteristics I inherited from my father. One of those is impatience, particularly with people who are slow-witted or incompetent. Another is contempt for people who are arrogant, hypocritical, or who work the system. There are a few people I encounter at work that probably cause that furrow to deepen gradually.

My face is a mixture of the heritage of mostly Irish ancestors, and probably before them, Nordic ancestors. No family trees go back far enough to know for sure, but I surmise that my ancestors must have travelled by boat to Ireland from Scandanavia because, unfortunately (see what I did there?) I don’t have the complexion of Snow White – the clear pale skin and dark hair typically thought of as Irish. I do have pale skin – but it burns red and freckles, and my hair and eyelashes are honey-blonde, or “ginger”, depending how kind you feel. To give you a pretty clear idea, one of my brothers, whose colouring is very similar to mine, used to be nicknamed Boris Becker when he was young, because his physical appearance, right down to blonde eyelashes and eyebrows, were very similar to those of the German Tennis player.

Boris "Boom Boom" Becker in the mid to late 80s. Doppelganger for my brother.

Boris “Boom Boom” Becker in the mid to late 80s. Doppelganger of my brother back then, even right down to the 80s haircut. Pic: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Looking at the photo I’ve taken of myself tonight, I see a resemblance to my grandmother, that is, the grandmother I have photos of. Dad’s mother died when he was only 12 years old, so I never met her, and there are only a few, stilted, black and white photos of her. Mum’s mother died when I was 18, so I have photos and vague memories of her. When I see myself smiling in photos, I’m often reminded of my mother and her oldest brother. It’s an ambivalent recognition – I”m not impressed that when laughing, my face looks as wide and artless as theirs (we fit the cliche “grinning from ear to ear”) but on the other hand, I do take pleasure in recognising in my own face the same mischievous enjoyment of a good joke that I see in their broadly grinning faces.

Humour is a quality I’m grateful to both my parents for passing on. Mum and her family love British comedies that combine deadpan delivery with slapstick and absurdity. My mother herself is absent-minded to the point of being eccentric, so it is almost as if she has become one of the characters in the slapstick comedies she adores. (For example, she will put a slice of apple pie and a scoop of icecream into a bowl and then ask me if I’d like it heated in the microwave.) Dad loves any kind of joke, and the rest of us can thank him for our quick, dry wit, so invariably someone in the family can fire off a witty response to mum’s absent-minded remark, causing everyone, including Mum, to dissolve into laughter.

In the photo I’ve taken of myself tonight, I can’t see any evidence of those positive traits – in it I am not smiling and mostly I just look tired. It’s definitely not a “satisfactory” image of myself and I’ll be deleting it after I’ve written this post.

But as I get older, I think I am becoming a little kinder to myself. I’m not always dismayed by reflection in the mirror, even though it’s getting older – and sometimes – yes, believe it or not, occasionally when I look at a photo of myself, I see past the laughing-double-chin or the side-profile-nose, and recognise Mum’s shy mischievousness, or Dad’s twinkling, dry-humoured eyes, and when I do, I feel that photo has captured some part of me that I like, and that makes me smile.

Brothers and sisters, I have some

I got 5 of ’em!

 

It staggered me recently to realise that when my mother was the age I am now, she was about to give birth to her 6th child! Whereas here I am with one, feeling like I couldn’t possibly be any busier than I am.

What’s more, I had my daughter at exactly the same age mum was when she had me, so it also follows that when I was 11 years old – the age that my daughter is now – I had 4 younger siblings and was about to gain a 5th! Thinking about it now, I wonder how my parents had a second to spare me any attention at all, with 5 other, younger kids requiring their attention as well!

School holidays seemed long when I was a kid, but they must have seemed awfully long to my mum, who was home with 6 kids, ranging from a baby to a grade 6 child. No wonder the baby slept in a crib in the kitchen during the day! And no wonder my mother was hospitalised quite a few times during my childhood with what was then described (to us kids at least) as “nervous breakdowns”.

Of course, it’s the silly things you look back on.

I recall one brother – I’ll call him Freddo – had a penchant for leaving home – this was when he was about 3-4. What amused us the most was that his chosen piece of luggage for his departure was always the same thing – an great big old kettle, the kind that you put an a wood stove (which we had in our kitchen) and after years of use, was blackened with – well, whatever blackens old kettles. He would put a matchbox car or 2 inside the kettle, as you do. He must have cut quite a figure as he set out in the big wide world, toting a large black kettle containing all his precious possessions. Luckily, we lived in a small town, so he’d be recognised by every second person in the main street, and always end up at some shop or other, out the back being fed pies, while they rang my parents to come and get him.

On another occasion, the same brother managed to cover himself, an old TV, other items out in the garage, and his best friend, with white house paint, and mum or dad having to try and clean it off them with turps. Ouch!

When I was pretty young, I was so fed up with my sister’s untidiness in our bedroom (you don’t get a room to yourself when there are 6 kids!) that I drew a line down the floor in chalk to divide the room into 2 halves. She was not to enter my half nor leave any of her crap in it. I can’t recall now if this was after we’d got a bunk bed…let’s hope not, or I would have made my own life hard, since I slept in the top bunk. (To get to it without encroaching on bottom bunk territory, I’d have to take a flying leap from the doorway!)

Another time, in a fit of anger at my sister, I threw a large magnet at her head. Luckily! – my aim was askew. I missed her head and smashed the glass door on the loungeroom. Phew! Boy, was I in trouble….but not as much as I might have been in had I hit her and knocked her out!

As you can see, when I was younger, I didn’t really value having a sister all that much. I can actually recall the evening when I realised that I was now happy to spend time voluntarily with my sister – that I’d started to see her as a friend rather than a burdensome younger sister. This was, naturally, after I’d moved out of home. I had this realisation one night when she’d come to stay with me in Melbourne, and we were preparing to go out to see a band together. It must have been the first of many, many such nights. If she hadn’t been living in Ireland for the past 10 years, there would have been many more, too, I’m sure. I always miss her when I’m out at a band that we used to see together.

Another brother, who I’ll call Grumpy, moved to Melbourne when he was only 16, to take up an apprenticeship. My parents organised this and put him in some kind of Catholic boy’s hostel accomodation in Brunswick where I can imagine he probably felt alienated and lonely. He used to come down to Fitzroy to visit me quite often, but at that time I was about 20 and living in a shared household full of other women, going to art school, completely selfish and absorbed in myself and my life, and found it difficult to have my younger brother dropping in because he was obviously depressed and I didn’t know what I could do to help him. He once asked if he could move in with me and I said no, because I knew that would be the answer from my housemates at the thought of a morose 16 year old boy moving in. That stint in Melbourne didn’t end well for him, and he moved back to Ballarat, where he still is now.

Now days I enjoying the company of my siblings (mostly!) and I’m aware that the connection I have with my siblings is one I couldn’t have with anyone else because it’s grounded in having that shared childhood experience. Sometimes I feel regretful that my daughter doesn’t have any siblings to share that particular kind of connection with. But she does have quite a few friends who also have no siblings, so I hope that they will value one another and their shared childhood memories in a similar way as they get older. And of course, you can’t miss something you never had. Siblings can cause you some worry and heartache as well – the more of them you have, the higher the odds are that you’ll have a fair share of that as well. But I’m glad I’ve got mine!

Stress free Christmas – is it possible?

At last I’ve succumbed and been inspired to write something about Christmas. Yes, I am aware that it is coming. But I feel kind of smugly successful at having, so far, not got caught up in feeling stressed out by the whole silly season. Part of my relaxed state of mind is, I think, due to avoiding getting too caught up in the pressure of consumerism (as much as is possible when you have a kid who is at an age where she still pretends to believe in Santa and we still let her, with a knowing parent-type ironic wink when he is mentioned.)

I’m not saying I’ve stopped buying presents – I haven’t – but I have stopped having lists of things in my own head that I would like, and wondering what I could be gaining from the seasonal spend up. Anyway, here is my list of suggested ways to remain fairly relaxed about Christmas:

If you have to enter one of those abysmal, enormous indoor shopping centres, plan this like a military operation.

Know your ideal amount of time (OK, I know, any time spent in one of these places is not “ideal” but set your minimum limit for remaining sane when “none” is not an option, and don’t go over it). Ensure you have a list of very specific ideas and a pretty good idea of where you are going to find them – if you are planning to wander around until you “happen” to find “the perfect thing”, this will undoubtedly end in tears, rage or possibly mass murder.

I went to “Knifepoint”, the affectionate nickname for my closest haven of mass consumerism. It’s true that I went 3 times in about 3 weeks, but each time I was in and out within 75 minutes, with the items on my list ticked off and in my bag. My short swift attacks on the shopping centre were stress free, one reason being that it allowed me to rethink about something I’d seen, in the calmness of my own home, and then decide to go back and get the item after all. As compared to trapesing around for hours trying to think of everyone I need to get a present for and what to get them and feeling pressured to get everything at once. Note that an important part of this plan is to realise in advance that once at the shopping centre you will not be able to think, so you need to have done the thinking before hand.

Also, obviously, do this as early as possible, in both senses of the word. I got my trips to Knifepoint out of the way  2-3 weeks ago.  I went in the mornings, so it was relatively uncrowded. Then, that was it. Any additional gifts required would have to come from the local shops. (see below.)

After trapesing around an indoor shopping centre Santa really needs some eggnog.

Wherever possible, when buying gifts, buy them as locally as possible.

I’ve done a few strolls into the local “village” shopping centre for gifts. (I live in Melbourne but every second suburb likes to call its local shopping centre “Such-and-such Village”. Having said that, I have to admit that our local shopping centre does feel a bit like being in a country town, complete with IGA supermarket and  still-daggy op shop.) It’s nicer in every way – less crowded, more relaxed, no long trips stuck in traffic on major roads, and you are supporting your local businesses.

Try to balance the consumerism by giving to those who don’t have anything

I always mean to do something charitable at Christmas time but being a selfish and lazy person, I don’t always get around to it. This year, however, we’ve made a few attempts to help others: my partner purchased toiletries for the Wesley Mission, and donated money to a mental health service, and I let my daughter choose and purchase a book in a local bookshop that is going to donate the selected books to Sudanese refugee kids living in the local area. I think it’s a great message to give a kid, (ie, mine) at Christmas, but also makes you feel good to know you’ve done something more worthwhile than buying gifts for people who already have an easy, cosy life.

Get in touch with someone you don’t normally get in touch with

Ok, so this sounds like a cliche, but I actually think it’s important. I have been thinking for a while that I should write a letter to my brother. Not the brother of the pirate text messages, but another brother (I have 4) – this one completely uncontactable. He doesn’t have a phone of any sort, landline or mobile, so no-one can contact him. This allows him to live in relative isolation, which obviously he prefers, though I can’t really say whether it makes him happy or not.

Anyway,  I probably won’t see him over Christmas, because I won’t be at my parents on Christmas day, and he doesn’t make any effort to see anyone if they don’t “happen” to be at my parents when he is. (which is approximately once a year, on Christmas day.) To be fair, I could make the one hour drive to go and see him another time….but it’s hard not to feel apprehensive about dropping in out of the blue on someone who clearly wants to be uncontactable. So, I wrote him a letter – just a few lines in a Christmas card, but I attempted to say something meaningful. Weird as it may sound, this was a difficult thing to do, partly just because it felt corny, and also  because I imagine him finding my friendly note patronising, so although I had the idea about 6 weeks ago, I only actually did it this week.

So I used Christmas as an excuse to make some contact with my brother.  I don’t delude myself that when he gets my letter he’ll squeal with happiness and rush out to ring me from a nearby pay phone. It wouldn’t surprise me to think he might just throw the letter in the bin, unopened. But I’m glad I wrote it anyway, since that kind of thing is what Christmas is supposed to be about. (Letting someone know you are thinking of them, not the throwing it in the bin part. But there is always a Scrooge somewhere in any Christmas story.)

A relaxed Santa, obviously not realising he is going to have his head bitten off soon.

Softeis

Lastly: Take some time to relax before Christmas

I’ve always worked right up to the last day possible, but this year I took this full week before Christmas off. So far it has been quite lovely to just potter around at home with my daughter, read, do some leisurely op-shopping, watch a Harry Potter film for about the 4th time, sit outside in the sun eating icecream, and of course, cook. Day three of holidays and I’m feeling about as relaxed as is probably possible for this time of the year.

So, that’s been my successful formula so far. It will be interesting to see how long the relaxed state of mind can last!

Ahoy there matey! How to text like a pirate. Or is it a poet?

So, those cultural theorist types write entire books about how our access to so much knowledge via the internet, and our ability to communicate instantly with one another via email and texting, does not necessarily  increase the quality of our knowledge OR our communications. Apparently it’s more likely that we all just communicate in a much more superficial way , have lost our ability to really engage meaningfully with each other, measure our own worth by how many “friends” we have on facebook, and are unable to concentrate on anything for more than 10 seconds. Did I say 10 seconds??? Get real. Make that 6 seconds. I feel distracted already.

Anyway, I gather that’s the gist of the argument. I haven’t really followed it,  since I’m too busy checking my email and texting a friend while writing a post on my blog at the same time.

But wait a minute. I know that texting can be a good thing for communications. What is my proof? My brother’s texts.

Maybe for most people, texting does reduce communication – and thought – to a simplified message with little room for flamboyant individual style. But not my brother. Since he got a mobile phone, not only do we communicate more often via texting than we ever did previously via phone, but also, I have a whole new appreciation for his entire sensibility, which seems to be something like an Elizabethan pirate, most likely hailing from Northern England or Ireland. Or sometimes like a mixture of Blackbeard, Shakespeare, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one. And he is not a student of literature. He does not live in the highlands of Scotland, as some of his turns of phrase might suggest, but Ballarat, Victoria. He works as a welder, has a lot of tatoos, plays in a death metal band, and obviously has a poetic bent when it comes to texting.

Here are some examples of his little pieces of poetic text:

Me: I sent u a pic of J but it won’t go thru! Might see u on weekend.

Shakespeare/Blackbeard:

I canee know why ur pic of J wont send. Tis a strange brew indeed. I mite join ye at ma n pa’s for a wee chinwag.

*

Me: How u going?

Blackbeard/Kerouac: Not too shabby me old mucka. Just ad rhubarb and apple pie for pud. Nummy. Nummy. Num.

*

Jack Kerouac: (on being released from hospital after a “mystery” illness)

Hi dee doodie! I got d aok from d rmh. Said I ave improved remarkably. Feelin groovy. Hope yr feelin groovy. Hope j is tickety boo boop dee do

*

and lastly, just yesterday:

Me: (in relation to Christmas presents) Is The Fellowship Of the Rings the one where Frodo gets that pesky ring in the first place?

Blackbeard/Kerouac: That’s the one. okeekokee, no worries. i’ll give ya a ring this week n ave a yarn. rock on me ol mucker

*

His texts are colorful and as full of character  as he is himself, and it’s always a laugh to receive one. There is the value of modern technology right there.

R, me ♥eez! WTF – WTP!



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