I’ve talked about my family before, I’m sure, but this week I’ve found myself thinking about extended family as a form of identity, all over again.
My granddad was the eldest of six children, which meant that my dad grew up in something of a clan – he had two siblings, and ten cousins on his dad’s side of the family, to say nothing of a stack of cousins and second cousins who were from his mum’s side. Families in those days had a lot of proximity about them. They all lived within a few miles of one another, in North Liverpool, and the ones who didn’t, didn’t go too far – Aunty Gwen lived in Parbold, Uncle Alf moved to Rainford, but mostly, they were less than ten minutes apart by car. Also, those of them that held on to the faith of their childhoods, tended to stay in the one church.
My dad’s generation, of course, were the baby-boomers (he only discovered this about himself recently, I can’t imagine where he’s been). They were the ones who did the 11+, and saw driving their own car as less of a privilege than a right, and would move towns for a job, and be the first in their family to own a house. My dad’s cousins were much more geographically disparate. We lived in various bits of East Lancashire when I was growing up, and Tim moved from Southport to Altrincham, and Phil spent about fifteen years in London, which was as close to the edge of the earth as made no practical difference to the rest of us.
Some of the cousins lost touch, at that point. There are at least four or five whom I know I would not recognise if I met them in the street – although one of that group is my “friend” on Facebook, and lives ten minutes walk from my house. I’ve not been round, though. A core, who stayed in Liverpool, also stayed in the church, and helped to create a kind of home base there, that the rest of us came back to, periodically. My grandparents and two of their children went for a communal living approach, pooling their resources to put three generations into a lovely big Victorian house in the suburbs. The house became another sort of base – there was always someone in, there, and when you arrived, you instantly felt part of the big family, probably just because a good proportion of the family were there already.
That house is where the Christmas parties were held (Boxing night, every year), with all the little traditions, including the one where Father Christmas arrived, and handed out presents to everyone (for hours…) in return for a rendition of Away in a Manger. One year, my granddad stood in for Santa by appearing in drag as a Christmas Fairy – drag isn’t something I would ever have associated with him, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, and as far as I know, it has never happened before or since. Increasingly, for me, part of generation number three of the ever more separated, and ever more numerous family group, the Christmas party was the only time I ever saw most of those people. We have less and less in common, and less and less to tie us together.
And yet, we are still tied together.
I heard a story, today, of one of my dad’s cousins, who’s immediate family had drifted away from the group, and who, now in her fifties, is missing her family, to the point of feeling quite resentful about it. It touched me. I don’t know this woman from Eve, but if she has discovered a need in herself to reconnect with the Family (that makes us sound like the Sopranos, and nothing could be further from the truth), then I’m pretty sure we have space for her. Why not? She belongs with us. She should have been here all along.
For various reasons, the Christmas party did not happen last year, and isn’t going to happen this year. It remains to be seen whether two years out will mean the end of it, forever. I’m really not sure how much effort is reasonable to expend, in an attempt to bring together a group of people who otherwise get along fine without each other. To bring any real substance to those relationships, I’m pretty sure we’d have to meet more frequently than that, and I’m equally sure that if someone were to do something off-the-wall, like host a family open house once a month, nobody would show up.
The fact is that our family is too big, now. Including spouses, there are knocking on for fifty living descendants of my great-grandma. So, it’s hardly surprising – the family is losing it’s structural integrity, because in modern life, when we live so far apart, and have such busyness to contend with, it takes all our energy to maintain our closest family links. The second cousins once removed are just once removed too far.
That kind of makes me sad. I’d like to find a way to fix it, to make it possible for the group identity to continue, because it’s a key part of my own sense of identity, and I suspect, I’m not the only one. I’m just not sure that it’s possible.