Family weirdos get a bad rap, and most families have one. The uncle who lost his eye in the war and shuns the company of others; the adolescent daughter who decided to cover herself top to toe in tattoos, eats only vegan and refuses to join her family even for birthdays; the religious zealots in an otherwise secular family. It’s hard for them to find a home at home and some conclude they don’t want a home among their fellow people. They want another home in which to feel safe, and rarely is it with their own kin.
Most of us start off life within a family, our first collective unit. We learn the connections fast: Mum, Dad, sister, brother, uncle and aunt, grandparents. We learn we have cousins who are blood connected, but otherwise further apart, and that friends are different from family. Important, but more transient than family, who by and large, are there for the long haul. Hopefully.
Perhaps because my father took photos I still remember the Bricknell family, a mother, father, daughter and son, who came to our house some Sundays after Mass for coffee and biscuits. Mr Bricknell employed my father as an accountant or so I remember, and he was a tall lean Australian man who wore a grey suit, white shirt, and a dark tie. His wife Mrs B visited in a tight-fitting suit of some type of blue chiffon, that although close fitting, had a matronly ring with the skirt well below her knee and the blouse buttoned to her neck. She also wore a pillbox hat covered in tiny white flowers. Women wore hats on Sundays after Mass and for some reason Mrs B did not take hers off.
My mother had a series of hats, too, over the years but none so elegant as Mrs B’s and she always took hers off the minute she came home, as if the effort to keep it on her head hurt her scalp.
To this day I do not like a hat on my head, a hat that pushes down on my brain, that squishes my temples and leaves me feeling top heavy, but when I was the age of Mrs B’s pillbox hat, I wore a little girl’s white hat, the same as my younger sister, with a ribbon around the middle, and made of a light straw which my mother had collected from someone, somewhere among their cast offs.
As one in the middle of nine, you’d think I’d hate castoffs but over the years I have come to love them more and more. The stuff you buy from opportunity shops. The stuff you find in people’s hard rubbish. The stuff your eye goes to because it has an appeal but it’s never quite what you’d buy from the shops first off. Stuff that has an edge of contradiction. A little like borrowing bits of another person’s identity to tack onto your own. The fact it’s loose at the waist and stops too low on your hips, or a colour you’d never choose yourself if you bought it new, but good enough given the style of the jumper or dress, doesn’t matter. It’s good enough.
Many such items belong in my wardrobe and after I have worn them long enough I begin to absorb their colour, shape and texture as if it is my own. Rather like absorbing another’s words.
I recognise this tendency in others, as when my grandson repeats after me, every word I use and then later tries them out for himself with odd effect. The wonderful things that little people say when they emulate the adults. The pleasure it gives us as we help them navigate their way through the world.
My two-year-old grandson who is just beginning to identify aspects of himself in the world relative to his new baby sister. Out of the blue one day as he sat on his highchair in my kitchen, on a chair we fashioned from a low step ladder as we do not have a proper highchair. Another cast off sorts. ‘I have a penis and a bottom,’ he said, gesturing with both hands back and front. Earlier he had said to his mother, when she was trying to hold her keys in place between her legs, with no hands spare while adjusting his pram, ‘Hold onto it with your penis’.
From time to time, he announces that he is a ‘big girl’ or that he has a ‘brother Violet’. He is trying to work out those basic gender categories we learn when we are young from the muddle of information that comes to us from parents and others about who we are and who we should be.
The weirdos transgress these categories. They refuse to fit in with the mainstream for all manner of reasons. They do not fit.
And so many people in my experience have that sense of not fitting in, as if they imagine everyone else does. But so many of us travel through life with bits and pieces of our personality that simply do not fit. The proverbial round peg in a square hole. And we navigate around these weird aspects of our person, hiding them from view more often than not, and only let them out at safe times when those we distrust are not looking.
Or we might share them among special friends or people who understand our predilections. Otherwise, such personal peccadillos can become a breeding ground of splinter groups. For good or ill. Those of us who refuse to take things that are uncomfortable lying down; who refuse edicts from government; who whistle blow; who refuse to go with the status quo. We can suffer for it if we’re unlucky or if we are too loud in our protests.
I have a hunch that every one of us is a weirdo inside. Only we hide these bits from view to keep us safe from the oppression of the normative. The condemnation of the mainstream.
I prefer the small tributaries that snake out to either side where they trickle alongside other tributaries that are also different, closer to the centre of the land and more sensitive to who we really are. Closer to the amazing uniqueness of every single one of us.