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.