Saturday, 12 June 2010

Family Ties

My friend Jayne and I went for a walk the other day. It was a long, companionable walk, dogs running ahead, the stream alongside the path  gently purling and swirling in eddies where stones and small boulders hindered its free flow. Squadrons of rooks bustled overhead in formation, swooping, diving, then settling in the tops of the trees lining the hollow lane, cawing raucously, the black rags of their untidy plumage fluttering in the breeze.

It was a day to be at peace with yourself and the world.

My friend has had a troubled past; recently she lost two close relatives, leaving her with a ragbag of emotions, unanswered questions, and an inner turmoil which will take a long time to resolve.

When your protagonist is dead, whatever is unresolved, remains unresolved.

Jayne has family, from most of whom she is estranged; I am an only child, I have no family other than very distant cousins.  For entirely different reasons we therefore find ourselves in very similar circumstances, without close family ties.  (I am speaking here only of  the current generation , not children or grandchildren)

Did I mind, she asked. Did I feel the lack of close kin?

"Yes and No, or maybe just Maybe?"

Well, what was I supposed to say? There’s no easy answer to that.

As we climbed  higher up the lane, we pondered the question. I have often thought how very pleasant it would be to have brothers or sisters, but here I had the example of Jayne before me, whose relationship with her brothers and sisters is difficult, to say the least.

History and novels are full of dysfunctional families, sibling rivalry, jealousy, even murder. I am not saying that fact and fiction are the same or that fiction is always based on commonplace reality, but  plenty of those ‘misery memoirs’ have been published, where one person’s view of family history is another person’s fiction.

If, like me, you are an ex-patriate, on a very mundane level, being an only child means you have no one to visit in your home country, no automatic right of entry into “your family”.  Continuity, your ‘slot’, your connection, have gone, you are a tourist in your own home town. Of course, there’s no guarantee that your siblings have stayed ‘home’ and that they’d want you to descend on them.

Being the only one of your generation means that you have no one to share your memories, which can be a very isolating feeling. Growing up as the only child probably also means that you have always been  solitary,  thrown back on your own resources, possibly lacking social skills and the ability to make friends easily, and to keep those you have.  Again, on the other hand, the lucky ones gain early independence and the ability to make their own decisions.

Jayne grew up as a member of an extended family, has a large circle of friends and is very easy company.  Her friendships with others are no closer or deeper than the very few I have. Like me she has little in the way of family contact.

I don’t know whether Jayne and I are exceptions to the rule or representative of our own backgrounds in our different ways; I don’t even know if there are rules.  I know several very close siblings, who have chosen to live near each other and who provide each other with help and support;  I know of others who live far apart but visit as often as they can and would consider their relationship to be a close one. I also know of siblings who positively dislike each other and even some, who might be as well be at war with each other.

As we came back down the hill, I was no nearer to answering her question than I had been when she first asked it. The nearest I could get to an answer, was to say:  “It all depends”.

Ideally, I would like to have had siblings, of the kind, compatible and supportive sort, and lived in the fantasy of a large and happy family; but then I would now most probably be a very different person to who I am. To my mind, a feuding family would be hell, a happy family, heaven. Either way, I have no experience of “The Family  -  that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape”,  as Dodie Smith said,  and never will.

Which is what?  Sad, not sad, a good thing, a bad thing? You tell me.


  1. It is neither sad nor bad. Nor good. It just is. I have said before, elsewhere, that I have one sister, with whom I have No Thing in common. I have no family with whom to share childhood memories either because her experience and memories, with the same parents, in the same home, are entirely different in flavor if not fact.
    I think it's nice if people have close families. But I think it's nice if people have close friends too. So long as a person has one or two or three people to be close to, the need is satisfied.

  2. Hello Friko.

    As was taking this walk with you and Jayne, I kept thinking about the family and how each individual member develops.

    I kept thinking ... it depends. And then I read your words saying the same thing.

    Yes, it does indeed depend. Having some very good, close friends has been very important to me over the years. In the past fifteen years, I have been very fortunate to have developed a close relationship with one of my brothers. That has been a wonderful connection for both of us.

    I'm sure that you will be receiving lots and lots of interesting comments on this topic.


  3. I have a brother who is ten years older. We get along very well and I find I am thrilled when we can reminisce about shared childhood experiences, but there are not that many of them. I always wished for a boatload of cousins - if we didn't get on, it would be much easier to disassociate myself from them! My cousins are all in England and Scotland and I envy them their closeness, but not their squabbles.

  4. Sometimes it seems as if people are plonked into families with no rhyme or reason really. It is not unusual to see siblings as adults, politely interacting with each other, but actually having very little in common anymore.
    I see my husband's family( he being the youngest of three) who's families are also expanding at a great rate, while my own direct family shrinks in comparison.
    Celebrations can be very busy with his larger family with lots of children and in-laws around, whereas my family gatherings seem a bit sad and lack-lustre in comparison.
    With just the one child I've had, my chances of being a grandparent lessen. I see my mother-in-law surrounded by grandchildren and can't help wonder that it does make old age easier, with more people to love and be loved by.
    I've asked my daughter many times if she has minded being an only child.She assures me that she doesn't because it makes a difference that we, and all her family love her very dearly and she is blessed to have many friends.
    I think very close friends, it doesn't have to be many, are a huge blessing, particularly in the vulnerable times of our lives.

  5. I don't think closeness is necessarily counted in miles - more a measure of that indefinable thing we call love.
    All my relations are scattered far and wide, but I would still describe us as having a strong bond... of sorts!
    When I was little, my extended family was close in miles, but for ever exploding in little squabbles which kept them far apart in another way; I find distance much more peaceful. Perhaps this is down to my introverted nature...

  6. meine Familie sind immer die Wesen, die mir in einem tieferen Sinne nahe stehen. Meine Familie war sogar mein kürzlich verstorbener Hund und ist ein Mensch, mit dem ich eigentlich eine sehr schwierige Beziehung pflege, aber der mir alles bedeutet. Familie besteht für mich nie aus Blutsverwandtschaft, die nur eine menschliche Idee ist, um wahrscheinlich eine Anarchie zu vermeiden :-), nun, mindestens so ähnlich. Ein Mensch mit einer grossen Familie (im weltlichen Sinne) kann sich unendlich einsam fühlen, ein Mensch ohne Familie kann dagegen im Leben erfüllt sein. Es hängt ganz einfach an jedem Einzelnen selbst ab. Das ist meine Meinung dazu.

  7. Yes it all depends.
    No one could write fiction more interesting than true family stories - you really can't make up some of the stuff that goes on. I have three siblings, one lives nearby and the other two live thousands of miles away. I'd say we're close - we email and chat weekly, all of us. We have friends to whom we're closer in a day-to-day way, but when serious things come up no one understands or responds like my siblings.
    The Great Dane is an only whose parents died at a relatively young age. I see that he has made my siblings his, but I know that he misses having someone to share his childhood memories. I was glad when our Lillypad arrived - she's seven years younger than our son, but the two of them, as adults, have 'come into' their bond. When TGD and I are gone they will have one another for their memories and their own families to which they can pass these on together.
    After having said all of the above, I believe that family is more than blood - sometimes family is formed despite blood. We can make our own family/tribal ties.

  8. Oh, you do seem to like opening cans of worms Friko! You've said it all. A family is like a microcosm of society, with all the warfare and peace treaties and lovefests and death threats.... My sister [Riseoutofme, the un-blogger]and I were six years apart, so even though we grew up without much save our family in common, in recent years we've become fast friends, even though she lives thousands of miles away.... There is my f-i-l down the road, of course! When I visit him I leave with murder on my mind. But I can talk for an hour, or a minute, to my sister, half a world away, and my whole outlook brightens!
    I could go on and on about this but I'm sure there's a line at your door, all waiting to put their two cents in, all of which I will read with great interest! Great topic!

  9. I come from a very small family though I have two siblings. I'm close to my older sister, have chosen to live in the same small town as she. I have never cared much for my younger brother though now at this point in life we get on well enough the few times we see each other or correspond. He has chosen to live far away across the country. My husband has 6 siblings (5 living) and he really makes no effort to see or contact any of them except for life cycle events. Friends are important but I'm sort of a solitary person. My husband also. We are solitary together. I have to make an effort to retain my friends. So I think it's more a matter of what kind of person you are, if you are OK being solitary or you need companionship.

  10. friko i grew up in a very small family. mum. dad, brother, one aunt, grandparents and great aunts and uncles. all are flown away now but for my mum, my aunt and my brother. i don't mind it, didn't really mind it then either because it opened me to other families who took me in or who i took in. my own children are growing up at this time with two uncles, a great aunt, and a mum and dad and grandma. that's it. they have super friends and seem like good people. i love each member of my family. i love my friends. it all seems good. steven

  11. Hi my dear Friko,

    We all have two chances at a family: the one we are born into, and the one we create or choose - and how we create/compose it is up to us.

    I had an average size family with aunts and uncles and cousins. I was banished from the family for leaving their religion. It was a sad time. But I have created a family of dear friends (beyond my immediate family) who are loving, accepting, interesting, creative, loyal, crazy and oh, so dear.

    It's kind of nice to be able to choose!

    If one feels the lack of close kin, hopefully it is a fleeting moment of nostalgia laced with regret, and you move on from the moment to remember, even celebrate your family of choice.

  12. I think if you don't have close family, friends can become that family. Even if you do have close family, sometimes you prefer your friends! It's never guaranteed that you won't.

  13. I'm sorry I deleted the last comment but I must remind myself to check my comment before posting it! I left out a word this time...Here's the revised edition.
    Your thoughts about families have caused me to consider my place in two families: first with my siblings who live across the Rocky Mountains. We don't see each other often but the bond I feel is very strong. My husband's family is closer to where we live and because my mother in law is alive our home is the hub of my husband's family gatherings. We enjoy the preparations leading up to these gatherings and the company of his family. It would be wonderful to live closer to every family member but in this modern world so many young people move away from home and the ties which were so strong are stretched and only become tighter for important gatherings and during holiday times. i often wonder how my parents felt when two of their daughters moved 500 miles from our island home. My sister moved back eventually and my husband's job allowed us only three years on the island. Wherever we moved we made good friends who became our family. "Friends are the family we choose for ourselves."

  14. I can't tell you how much I admire your ability to turn a beautiful and meaningful phrase. My favorite one this time is:
    When your protagonist is dead, whatever is unresolved, remains unresolved.
    Thank you, Friko, for sharing your writing with me.

  15. Hmm not sure Dodie Smith is much of an expert on fmaily, having been an only child whose father died when she was 2 and grown up in her maternal grandparents house however I will say that as one of 4 al my siblings have married only children . I am married to an only or a "unique" as the French say, and in my experience I think there is a lot to be said for marrying an orphan!!

  16. Like June I have a sister I have not very much in common with. Our childhood memories are totally different ones though we are just three years apart. Dysfunctional family bonds I would call it. My mother has , yet again , chosen not to speak to me since Easter, and my father whom I meet twice a week at work could just as well just be my boss.... so YES it all depends: My OH has a very close relationship with his brother and when they meet I often hear them say : do you remember when....
    My closest relative, emotionally, is a cousin, and he just told me something that you have put into much better words " when your protagonist is dead, whatever is unresolved , remains unresolved." But do we always have to try to resolve? It costs so much energy and the process can be so painful plus the outcome isn't certain, and can cause even deeper injuries.

  17. I think the family we make is far more important than the family we're born into. If siblings torture each other when together, then they're better off apart. But one should remain open-minded. I'm becoming reacquainted with a sister that I haven't had contact with in over 20 yrs. That's exactly what we're doing - getting to know one another. I'd like to become her friend. It would be very nice.

  18. I was lucky that my mother lived to 92 so I could visit her in France twice a year for decades, but now that she is gone I have a second cousin we can go and see who lives close to Paris – she is my age. She and her husband are dears and we do laugh a lot with them, but we have had lives so different that we don’t have much in common, and she is not computer literate. What I miss being an expat in the US is someone to speak to in my own language or understand my culture (the culture in North America is so very different.) If I had some French family it would make it easier maybe or maybe not. But then again, I am only ½ French since my father was Armenian. Just today I received an email from my first cousin (from my father’s side) who is in South Korea for some reason (he is an Armenian Egyptian) but will be in California soon, I shall meet him as he said he has some family pictures I have never seen.
    I was lucky to have known so many nice international people through my work. They are not close friends but they call me often (had a call from Kuwait yesterday and from Tunisia last week.) I wish I knew my father’s family – I know they are all over the world, but I don’t know where. They were all dispersed. I guess that’s why they call it the Armenian diaspora. I have no close family and no close friends, but I do not mind that much – just sometimes, like holidays when family would be nice to have. Yes, I would like to have some family who would understand me, would have my culture – it is hard to be an expat in a country like the US when your background is not Anglo-Saxon. To answer your question then – I am not sad. I think the computer and all that can be accessed have helped a lot, and then I have my books.

  19. I am greatful for the circumstances that made you the soul you are...

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral

  20. I must agree with Mark's statement brother (14 years younger) lives across the country. It might as well be on the other side of the world for "all" of the communication we share. For unknown reasons he chooses to live removed. Here in the Midwest, family ranks #1 with huge gatherings on any occasion. How I envy them. In the meantime, I have worked very hard over the years to become friends with others and have been rewarded in turn with their precious gift of friendship. They have now become my family in a sense. When I have those moments of feeling like an only child, the reminder of my other friendships brings a light to my heart. But always..I think what joy a close relationship would have brought to both my parents and myself if only this distant brother would have been emotionally closer. How sad for all of us.

  21. My mother was one of nine children and my father , one of four , plus two half-siblings . So I've rather lost track of how many cousins I have , let alone how many children they all have .
    Whenever we meet , I'm fascinated by how familiar they seem , even ones I hardly know . Genes? Or shared memories .
    I suppose like many I think of my husband and children as my family . Which is a small section of a great tribe whose customs and names , looks and humour I share .

  22. Everyone's circumstances are so different. Your own have made you who you are.. and from where I'm standing, that's a good thing. :)

  23. My hairdresser is one of 11 children, and is close both emotionally and physically to most of them. I find that amazing, and quite unlike my own situation, but I don't envy her. I have two older brothers who live at opposite ends of the country, and who I see about once or twice a year - but I wouldn't say we're close. I have grown much closer to some of my cousins in the last few years, and find the family connection makes our relationship quite meaningful. There is a difference between friends and family, a kind of unspoken trust or maybe it's just familiarity, that makes me take their affection for granted in a way that I don't do with my friends. Although my mother's generation had their fair share of estrangements, I somehow feel that the family bond is unbreakable. At the moment I'm staying with a cousin (a double one - our mothers were sisters and our fathers, brothers) and there is something quite strong between us because of that. It helps that he's a nice guy, of course. But I feel utterly accepted in a way that I never question, whereas I second-guess my friendships sometimes.

    My grammar is not improving, Friko, but I'm not taking care with what I'm saying! I saw this post in one of my few glances at the computer in the last few days and wanted to let you know I had read it. I sometimes wonder if children without siblings miss out on certain aspects of social development. Depends on who and what else was in their lives, I imagine. I'd much rather get into a discussion about this with you over a glass of wine...

  24. Dear All,

    Thank you so much for your comments. It would be silly to try and answer each of you individually; most of you have said the same thing in different words. Family can be a force for good, a pleasant way of life, a matter of indifference, a reason for dislike, etc.

    It all depends.

    I think the consensus is that good friends are at least as important as
    family for most people.

    Actually, nobody has said that they need neither family nor friends, which I find slightly surprising. I would have thought that my preference for solitude would be shared by somebody, somewhere.


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