Compared to my husband, who boasts a heady mix of Welsh and Irish- Scottish Catholic blood, gazillions of cousins, uncles, aunties and hangers-on, plus the corresponding Christmas card list, I descend from a relatively spindly branch of the family tree, many of us are dispersed widely across the globe, and not always present on occasions of tribal gathering.
I am one of two, my husband is one of two, and my mother is one of two too! My father is an only child, and having lost my precious maiden name in the marital alliance with the Whelan Clan, I bestowed his name upon my son in a futile effort to eke out my paternal lineage. (The ungrateful wretch has since decided that being called Arthur is not cool enough, and is toying with something more easily abbreviated without sounding like one half of a folk rock duo.)
I am however, quite attracted by the romantic notion of a large noisy family; huge dining tables groaning with offerings from several households, three or four generations of crazy relatives at big birthdays and anniversaries, celebrating en masse, cousins galore; ready-made pals for life. My idle reveries often feature a vine-draped arbor, the sound of cicadas and mountains of hand made pasta, but in truth I feel a little exhausted just thinking about it.
Christmas at my house is a modest affair. On 25th December we four fight over the last brussel sprout with the two sets of grandparents who are still mercifully in possession of their own teeth and a complete set of marbles. Then on the 27th December my sister and her husband usually join us for an arguably more hilarious and relaxed feast. Like us they too decided to call it quits after cleverly making one of each, and so Arthur and Rose have a matching playmate cousin for the day.
I’ve come to realise that, deprived of that fabled fecund family, I have, instead, gathered around me an enviable accretion of Good Friends. In the same way a caddis fly larvae collects little grains of sand with which to build a protective case around it’s vulnerable little body as it grows, I have unwittingly assembled an extended ‘family’ around me. In recent years I have found a handful of what I call my Yorkshire Friends, and between us we have carried each another through some of the most challenging phases of trying to be a grown-up and a parent. Without them, I might have gone right off my rocker by now. Last weekend I was reminded again of how precious all these metaphoric grains of sand are to me…
Initiate super-wavy flash-back effect: Back in 1991, I began ‘studying’ for my Fine Art degree at The University College of Ripon & York St. John, and there, in the off-campus halls of residence I met three girls, one reading English & Drama, one reading Drama Film & Television and one Studying to become an OT (Occupational Therapist). I made lots of other friends, but in the second year these three fatefully asked me to join them in a house-share, which was to become some of the most colourful, memorable and diverting years of our lives.
Now, when I said ‘studying’, there was actually very little of that, and when I say ‘memorable’ there are certain passages of that time obliterated from memory by having had a bit ‘too much fun’, so one of the benefits of us getting together from time to time, is to fill in the gaps and process some hitherto dormant memories.
Our paths through life have since taken us in diverse directions. We got married, settled down, had children and pursued a career, (well, not all of us managed the career, I’m still working on that). Six years has passed since we last found a space in our family organisers that lines up, like some kind of rare cosmic event, so it was massively exciting last Friday to be driving down the motorway towards a two-night ‘house-share’ in Cheltenham with the old gang. From the moment we were reunited we could have been back in our Victorian villa on St. John Street, and twenty-one again.
The weekend was spent catching up, in detail, on the trials and tribulations of ‘adulting’, we laughed so hard we cried, drank like the student union bar was about to close, and we vowed to make more time to do it all again soon. As I drove home I realised that some friendships are evergreen, always present, and strong as iron, and I’m thinking it might be because we shared ‘formative years’ together?
Let’s go even further back into the mists of time to 1984 when I forged an unbreakable pact with three fellow Dover Girl’s Grammar School friends. We share a very peculiar brand of ‘formative years’ history featuring some unbelievably odd teachers, many mad-cap adventures, and the heart-thumping discovery of Boys. The journey through puberty is a particularly binding one for girls. The solidarity of that fateful day of ‘becoming a woman’, and the ensuing dramas about sanitary towels and period pains, can only be assuaged by sympathetic friends with a sense of humour. The four of us have remained stalwart pals to this day and, like the St John Street gang, we’ve managed, despite bonkers schedules and long lapses of separation, to stay closely connected. I am devoted to these women as if they were my sisters, and we are amused by the way our children also enjoy each other’s company, compelled it seems by some invisible force of friendship generated by their mother’s close sisterhood.
However, I continue to search out the bond of blood, perhaps because for me it is more rare and precious than for those born out of a huge genetic melting pot. The day I first met my new niece, eighteen years ago, (!) I was blindsided by a deep fondness. I had never really been gooey about babies, but suddenly I loved this little bundle with an absolute and complete conviction. It was the first time I really thought about the cliché, “Blood is thicker than water”.
The same unexpected sensation occurred when my young cousin from New Zealand washed up on these shores a few years ago and we met for the first time. He was just a kid, we were two strangers with one thing in common; his grandma was my mother’s sister, (who married a handsome New Zealander in the 1950’s and ran away with him to the end of the earth) But, on seeing him, I felt such happiness and an instinctive affection that can only be attributed to our family connection. We were able to laugh together at the same things, marvel at family likenesses and talk as equals.
His mother, my first cousin, featured in my early childhood as a dazzling, exotic creature who whirled briefly through my life on her travels when I was about seven. I still recall this beautiful young woman who looked so much like my mother, (except she wore a turban of pink silk) bringing gifts from the orient; miniature glass animals wrapped in mysterious Sanskrit news-print; a little green chenille bird with wire legs that looked like it had flown from the pages of a Rupert Bear annual. She was a kindred spirit.
Well, reader, she came back! Last week we were reunited after a lifetime apart, and she hadn’t changed a bit. Her first words to me were, “Oh Emma-Jane, you look just like… YOU!” (I should add, she is on Facebook, so I don’t think she was talking about the, buck-toothed skinny kid she remembered from 1980) It felt wonderful to recognise shared genetic traits with someone beyond my small and immediate family circle. We enjoyed a surreal lunch together with my sister, where we all just kept looking at each other’s faces. We talked so openly and with a frankness that comes about when you have more than thirty years of catching up to do in a short time, and over the next couple of days we walked and talked incessantly. It was a privilege to show her the British countryside that her mother referred to as ‘home’, and see her delight in all things ‘English’, that evidently made up such a big part of her, despite being born a New-Zealander. And I loved hearing all about my other cousins, her brothers, and their lives so far away.
I was sad to see her go, but ever in pursuit of adventure and enlightenment she left, on a train out of York, to continue her journey which this time will lead via Paris to an artists residency in Varanasi. I can’t wait to read her blog, and the two of us have even fantasised about the next time we might meet up. Maybe I’ll join her in Jingdeshen decorating Chinese porcelain, or I might even take the 26 hour flight from London to her home in Aukland where I’ll meet my other cousins, and her beautiful daughter, and they can show me the beach where The Piano was filmed, but one thing I know is that my ‘Nuzzy Cuzzies’ will always be there in my blood.
I googled the title of this post and was surprised to find this, which I thought was interesting:
“Blood is thicker than water.
–This is one of many Bible verses that has been misadapted for common use, because the word “convenant” doesn’t roll off the tongue in everyday use. However, the real version completely changes the meaning. The quote comes from: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This actually means that blood shed in battle bonds soldiers more strongly than simple genetics. Although we commonly use it to suggest the strength of family ties, it doesn’t refer to family at all”.*
So, rather conveniently, the phrase works both ways. My faithful comrades who marched with me shoulder to shoulder against the slings and arrows of outrageous teen-hood and student parties are as bound to me in blood brotherhood, as those far flung distant branches of my genetic heritage, and for all of them I am truly grateful.
#friendship #cousins #family #childhood #studentdays #reuinions #distantrelatives #familyties #sisterhood #support #caddisflylarvae
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