“If you don’t get a job, Loren, no worries, just get busy and make some babies.”
“Emma, you need to stop wasting your life! Go back to work and use your education!”
Family. Where else can you find such an endless source of conflicting and unhelpful advice?
I’ve just returned from a last minute trip to Sydney where we celebrated Baba’s 80th birthday. After our trek up there for the wedding in October it was decided (by Baba) that it would be best if we all didn’t come up again so soon, given the considerable effort it takes to lug a family of five over the border. Then, a few days before the event, Dave started making suggestions. “Why don’t you just fly up with your family?” At first I didn’t give the idea any consideration, particularly in light of the fact that I would have just returned from a spa getaway a few days prior, it didn’t seem fair to land Dave with the kids for three nights while I was off on another jaunt.
But he was insistent, so I did.
Being reunited with just my immediate family (plus Artur) was decidedly odd and very familiar. My day to day reality is so completely different that to just play the role of daughter and sister again felt like picking up a bag that you expected to weigh a tonne and finding it weightless instead. I was chauffeured around, train tickets paid for, plane tickets organised, cooked for and fussed over. My sisters and I fell back into an easy banter and the family dynamics of repetitive jokes that set off a Mexican wave of laughter returned. At one point each member of the family was visibly twitching on the train to provoke a frustrated Hali as she earnestly tried to explain the new gaming phenomenon.
The old fights returned also, with Loren and I getting into a doozy after I reacted against her clear condescension in an argument. It didn’t last long, thankfully and we have agreed to disagree once again.
We acted like kids, challenging each other to reckless trolley races around the streets of Cabramatta, playing rivalrous games of Trouble, Gin Rummy and Candy Cane. At one point we were all lounging in Mum and Dad’s room, Loren and Hali draped over the bed, reading out Reddit stories about amusing pets. For a moment it was like time had circled back once again.
The time warp that is my grandparents’ house was slightly altered this time, thanks to the recent storm that swept through Cabramatta, slaying the Foxtel connections of every house on the street. Without his safety net, Deda was decidedly more social- sharing memories from his childhood (he was a tank driver in Slovenia), provoking many religious debates (he is a staunch atheist) and giving each of us lectures on how we should make decisions.
Usually, I clash so violently with Deda (in a passive-aggressive sense) and end up leaving the house completely undone. As a person devoted to pleasing others (particularly authority figures) the lack of straightforward paths to acceptance absolutely kills me and I just feel completely destabilised. A few visits ago, in the midst of the dark hole that was Hudson’s first year, the relentless (and contradictory) criticism of my parenting (“You are too soft on them!”… “They need some more discipline!”) left me shredded, so much so that I refused to even share a car ride to the station with Deda and walked sobbing all the way there instead.
This time, however, the recent discoveries about my identity provided a good foundation for the emotional onslaught and I refused to fall into the familiar trap of helplessly defending myself. Instead, I turned the focus back onto Deda and asked if the fount of all wisdom concerning meaning and happiness was in fact happy himself? “No.” was the immediate answer.
“Have you ever been happy?”
“Yes… when I was working as an electrician full time and then working on the flats that we owned every night”.
That was twenty-five years ago.
I’ve just finished ‘A Spool of Blue Thread‘ (Anne Tyler). It is a tale of family, expectations, generational links and repetition, clashes and the importance of location as the backdrop of the entire story.
Really, at the heart of it, every family shares so much similarity in the way conflict is raised and buried, the roles that people play and are expected to adhere to and the wistfulness of the aging as they watch everything slipping out of their hands. Baba is convinced, with a tinge of desperation, that her fortnightly feasts prepared for her son and grandchildren are the only thing propping them up.
She needs to be needed.
Deda is horrified that the university education he demanded that we pursue has not resulted in a wholesale rejection of spirituality as his entire worldview (‘only stupid, emotional people think that religion is worthwhile’) is at risk of being shattered.
The young, idealistic versions of themselves are trapped deep inside as they are relegated to figureheads of the family, caricatures that sit back and smile, hollowly, as their family mingles around them.
Aging can be a brutal, destabilising process. Particularly when you are so intent on gripping onto the threads of those around you and yanking them into your own ideals of character and ambition. When you try with all your might to suppress certain qualities in the next generation, only to witness them in raging bloom even before your grasp is loosened. I’ve been convicted about my own ‘designs’ on my children and attempts to mould them beyond basic pursuit of values and virtues.
And yet, where else can you witness the legacy that is passed down through family? The ordered, methodical way that Baba approaches the preparation and clean up of every meal is eerily similar when I look at my own habits (and those of my parents). Deda’s stubborn passion for knowledge, history and truth oozes out of myself and my sisters, albeit in slightly different ways. Expression of love through food and hospitality, methodical tending of a garden, devotion to tireless work, a sense of achievement in personal efforts…. this yarn is woven into our stories and will no doubt continue to exhibit in generations to come.
The walls of the retro home are lined with tapestries. Lovingly and painstakingly created by Baba during an era where her fingers were uncurled and agile. A young girl sorrowfully collecting sticks in the snow, couples of French nobility coquettishly flirting by a calm lake, deer watchfully grazing in the forest. These scenes speak of a wistful life, a woman torn from her homeland by the duty to her family. A woman seeking to create colour and life where little existed.
The brash advice that is so liberally dealt out undoubtedly arises from Baba’s fears of this harsh world and her fierce love for all her offspring. Eighty years on and she has undoubtedly left a significant legacy already- her recipes unchanging- bringing us together over schnitzel, chicken lasagna, jelly cake, fried potatoes, beef goulash, cherry cake and countless other favourites. There is a moment, when everyone is enthusiastically dishing out large helpings, where she pauses with the corner of her mouth upturned in a slight smile and surveys her family…. and she is happy.
Family. It’s a shifting, confounding, incredible, frustrating and miraculous masterpiece.