A ‘dysfunctional’ family gathering

Yesterday we celebrated my birthday, another year older and all that. It was essentially an ordinary day – work to schedule and then in the evening a celebration. If not for the celebration and the occasional good wishes from people, including some in blogsville – thanks Kath, thanks Jim – it might have felt like any other day.

Birthdays are a big deal in my family. We celebrate them with gusto. The one day of the year when you really count. The one day of the year when you are entitled to feel special. The one day of the year when people are required to be kind to you, to avoid conflict, to make an effort for you, and so on and so forth.

My grandson gave me a portrait of his grandmother: black lines against a sea green wash. He included a wobbly line in the middle of one stick like projection to mark my broken leg. My grandson decorated the frame himself with sequins, coloured ice cream sticks, spare scraps of material and glitter.

It is a masterpiece and one I will treasure always. My first ever piece of his artwork. My grandson is three. Given that both his parents are artistic, I imagine he might inherit the art gene and the same tendency to create beautiful pieces from them. Though he may not. Inheritance is a mixed bag.

Last weekend my nine sisters and brothers proved this point when we came together for the first time in thirty-eight years. The reunion had not been easy to organise. It came about as the brainchild of my older sister, my youngest brother and me.

Other attempts in the past have failed. We three met some months ago with the thought that as we are all getting older it is high time we tried to make peace with one another and to sort through some of the unspoken issues from our past lives together.

Our birthdays span eighteen years and we stretch across Australia in four different states. Between us we have produced twenty-three grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, including one who did not make it, and an eighth child on the way.

We led different lives as children even when we were together. The four oldest were born in Holland before the real troubles set in (at least they were not evident then, though there were rumblings) with immigration from Holland to Australia, another five children and my father’s lapse into alcoholism and all that followed.

Over the years we became a fractured family. At my father’s funeral twenty-eight years ago, eight of us attended. One of my brothers was overseas at the time and he chose to stay away. My oldest brother wrote the eulogy and I well remember my ‘unreasonable’ anger with him for describing our father as a man I scarcely recognised.

My oldest brother’s father from his childhood was a far more coherent and decent man than the father of my childhood and yet at our father’s funeral the only man described to the attendant mourners was that of my oldest brother’s somewhat idealised view.

Such is the spread of experience.

At one time over this extraordinary weekend, some of us sat together in a small café in Griffith NSW – a country town chosen as an neutral midway point – and talked together about what it had been like for us. Some of us I say, including all four of the girls, and my youngest and oldest brothers.

We four younger ones were able to tell my oldest brother about how difficult life had been for us with a father who clearly preferred his sons to his daughters, who considered the girls to lack intelligence and who believed that women were good for three things – for housework, for making babies and for male sexual gratification, irrespective of age.

My father was a misogynist.

I can feel differently for him now. I can feel compassion for him now dead all these long twenty eight years but then even when he died, even after he had managed to stop drinking for the last five or so years of his life, I still felt my anger towards him, and my fear.

To be able to tell my oldest brother who looks exactly as my father looked when he lived – the same clipped grey beard, the same intense blue eyes, the same tall but stopped figure – was the closest I will ever come to talking to my father in person.

Despite the similarities however my oldest brother is different from his father. He has two children. And he has been ‘successful’ in his life. He has had the freedom to move from one career to the next, four in all he says, from his life as a lay missionary, and at one time a potential priest, from a senior public servant advising government on matters of policy, through his years as a PhD candidate and working for private enterprise through to today where he advises industry on best practice to enhance sustainability in such places as meat processing works, and as the farmer of cashmere goats. He has mellowed.

We have all mellowed or so it seemed to me over the course of the weekend, though the four in the middle are perhaps more troubled.

Two of my middle brothers are reluctant to speak. One articulates his rage, though he will tell you through gritted teeth that he is not angry. He wants to leave the past in the past.
‘Paint over it,’ he says. ‘If it reappears, paint over it again.’ The irony here is that this brother is an artist. Another brother who has been silent for many years and continues to remain silent, came to the reunion, as he said to me during the course of dinner, because it would have been ‘churlish’ not to come.

He cannot, he told me, give people what he imagines they want. I do not know what this is but I know that I for one want him to talk. But this brother is locked into his own world and experience. He dominates with his silence.

Silence is powerful. While the rest of us tend to be loud, opinionated, dominating leader types, this one brother sits in silence. Not that he is unsuccessful in his chosen career, as in teaching in computers, but there is a divide between his work and his personal experience such that no one can get to know him.

My immediately younger sister is another one who will argue that the past is in the past.
‘It is over and done,’ she says. ‘Let’s just have a good time.’ She socks away another glass of wine. My sister drinks too much, but by the size of her she does not eat. She is skin and bone.

I write these things and worry that I am telling tales out of school. No names mentioned. These are my siblings, or at least my version of them. We love one another, I dare say but some of us are also angry with one another, too, for all the hurts and misunderstandings.

The weekend moved in waves. First the light and simple small talk that is a feature of most initial comings together and then one of the few spouses who joined us, my first married sister-in-law, who claims to be the oldest one of all, stood to give a short speech, which she read from a scrap of paper.
‘You need to get together the nine of you,’ she said. ‘Find a room and talk. You owe it to yourselves. Your past experience as children has affected not only your spouses but also your children. You need to talk.’

I am grateful to my sister-in-law for speaking thus, though two of my siblings leaped up, those who want to bury the past in anger and my oldest brother who said to me later that he thought my sister-in-law had pushed it too far.
‘We need to move slowly,’ my oldest brother said. ‘We don’t want to alienate anyone.’ He is right.
‘But we cannot move too slowly,’ I said. ‘Soon one of us at least will be dead.’

After my sister-in-law’s speech and a few howls of protest from those who would prefer to squash their memories, I leaped to my feet.
‘You ignore the past at your peril, ‘ I said, quoting some famous historian I read somewhere whose words still resonate for me. ‘We need to talk about the secrets, about the incest. We need to talk now. Or at least to listen to one another to those of us who can speak.’

I cracked it at this point. I sobbed in despair that we might never get together and talk in the way I had imagined. I had not driven in a car with three of my Melbourne-based siblings for six hours from Melbourne to Griffith to share pleasantries. I wanted to have meaningful conversation.

Meaningful is a term that is open to interpretation. For me in the end we held meaningful conversations but not once did it happen in the company of the whole group, though we tried after the dinner to pitch up together with an extra bottle of wine in one of the rooms in the hotel in which my youngest sister slept.

But our silent member did not come to this gathering and others soon fell off along the way. A few of us die-hards, mostly from the Melbourne contingent, stayed talking till one am. Even so we shared breakfast together the nine of us and talked together in pockets.

I have heard that everyone agrees to meet again another day.

Maybe that is the best we can hope for, to come together again somewhere down the track, and hopefully not at a funeral, whether that of my mother who at ninety one is likely to be the first to go, or one or another from the rest of us.

I wrote a paper once in which I described aspects of my experience. The paper was on autobiography and narcissism. Some of my colleagues were outraged. How can you do this they said, too much self-disclosure. One person described my family of origin as ‘dysfunctional’.

I bridled at the term. Who or what is dysfunctional, if not a convenient term by which to denigrate people. If you saw my family of origin now with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies you would see a family of high achievers, not that high achievement rules out personal difficulties. All bar one of my siblings have married at least once and had children of their own, and these children, the adults among them, in their turn are also successful.

My family of origin includes two accountants, three teachers, four psychologists, one artist, five PhDs, two yet to complete, one celebrant, one environmental consultant, one IT expert who teaches at tertiary level, three artists to varying levels of exhibition, two of whom are commissioned to present their work, two published ‘creative’ writers, three other writers published in their technical fields, one highly successful business man, director of companies and wealthy in the extreme. Many of us share multiple roles. No one is unemployed.

Do I sound defensive against the charge – a dysfunctional family – perhaps, or proud? My parents, for all their difficulties, valued education, even for the lesser mortals, the girls. They recognised that in education lies advancement.

For this I shall always be grateful. For the rest I have mixed feelings, but we are not dysfunctional in that typical ‘social work’ use of the word, not a multi-problem family any more than any other family.

What is it that Tolstoy writes? ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’