Blood is thicker than water. That is how the saying goes. From a young age, we are told that family bonds will hold us together, supporting us through good times and bad. Family will always be there to fall back on and they will protect us against outsiders and the follies of fate. In reality, though, families can be a root cause of those bad times almost as much as they are the saving grace we are led to expect.
Many families are a dysfunctional mish-mash with little in common other than blood and memories. Rather than The Waltons, more often than not our families better reflect The Simpsons. We indulge the peccadilloes and tendencies of family that would be unacceptable in our friends. But somehow, and against the odds, families work. As another saying goes: you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.
I come from quite a loose knit family that does not live in each other’s pockets. I am close with my parents, but the uncles, aunts and other relatives that some of my school friends met regularly have never been as that central to my life. I am an only child and, aged five, we relocated from Brighton to Bristol, 150 miles from our family. The move was for my father’s career and so that I could have a better education. As a child, I enjoyed summers back at the seaside and we ran the gauntlet of Christmas visits, but we always returned to our family home near Bristol.
Sometimes I have envied friends in the Balkans. Most of them enjoy close ties with family and regularly get together en masse to mark milestones or celebrate Christmas and Easter. My friends in Serbia and Bosnia seem to appreciate their families in many ways. Even friends are often called brothers and sisters. For them, extended ties have influence throughout society (including ways that would be better avoided, I might add). They provide support, stability and encouragement in life and could be argued to hold together the fabric of society.
By modern British standards, Balkan bonds are definitely much tighter and more secure. That obviously has advantages, such as a sense of belonging, the support of others and an established network to fall back on. From a personal point of view, I can also see some downsides: everyone knows your business and feels free to voice their opinion, you have a lot of family history to live up to and, if anyone does anything wrong, you are likely to be tarred with the same brush. That would really get on my nerves, but that is just my opinion. They do enjoy wild family get-togethers though, and I do like that side of the coin.
Since leaving college and establishing a life of my own, back near my childhood home in Brighton in fact, I have not felt too inclined to rekindle frayed family ties. Obviously they exist in my life, even if we never meet and hardly talk, but they do not play an active role. The only family gatherings I have attended in the past two decades are the funerals of an elderly great aunt and my grandmother earlier this year. My 92-year-old grandmother died last month. Even though she had been unwell for some time and she was advanced in years, the jolt of her death still rang through the family. During her final few days, we gathered by her hospital bedside. That she was unaware of our presence did not seem to matter: The act of coming together was comfort enough for us.
Much of the family came together for the funeral. What made this occasion so unusual was that it was the first time all of us had been in the same room in almost twenty years. My grandmother achieved that much at the end.
Since then, my interest in family has been given a new lease of life. I am curious about my family’s history and intend to hold on to what little I know. Interestingly, I have reconnected with my cousins, Thomas, Victoria and Emily. We are scattered to the four winds, successful in our lives and going where our opportunities and dreams take us. But, thanks to social media, distance is no longer a problem. We have not met in many years but we grew up together and became friends as well as family. After all, we share the reality of life within our family. We have experienced the celebrations as well as the embarrassments, and we know the stories.
So maybe family means more to me that I thought. I have even started to correspond with my Dutch nephew Martijn. Actual letters – not just the occasional Facebook comment. Just like the old days when I wrote regularly to college mates and friends overseas. Old habits die hard, I guess.