Life, Relationships

The Family Way

“Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.” ~ Philip Pullman

I’ve just been reading this beautiful post by the wonderful blogger/writer Joanna Cannon. It’s about how we accumulate sentimental objects throughout our lives, but then after we die those objects lose their meaning, and the only measure of the life we lived is whether or not anyone feels sentimental enough about our photograph to dust it.

It’s made me think about whether anyone is like to remember me after I die.

Like Joanna I have a collection to sentimental odds and ends to remind me of the past. I’ve amassed so much stuff that I have to keep it all in a trunk. I’ve kept the boarding passes for every flight I’ve ever taken and the tickets to every play and concert I’ve ever seen. I have the table keepsakes from every ball I went to as a student and every wedding I’ve been too since. I have a pair of tiny horse shoes from a trip to Gretna Green, and a little dog made of some sort of pottery that my reception teacher gave me after I performed in my first nativity play. There’s also every letter that’s ever been written to me, along with at least one photograph of almost every person I’ve ever known.

Whenever I look at this stuff I like to imagine someone else going through it after I’ve died, looking back, fondly, at the things I’ve done and all the places that I’ve been. In reality, though, I know that this is unlikely. It’s even less likely that anyone will be polishing my photograph. Keeping framed photographs of the dead on display on around the house tends to be something that only families do. And family is a habit I never fell into.

I have friends who I think of as well as family, and most of the time I like to imagine that they’ll always stick around in a similar way. As often as not this isn’t the case, however.

Sometimes this is my fault. Sometimes there’s.

Sometimes it’s simply because, in the absence of an immediate family or partner of my own, my dearest friends happen to be the people who are the most important to me. People who think that there is a right way to do life tend to be a bit uncomfortable with that. The ones whose world view rests on the belief that friends come and go but your family will always be there for you, and feel somehow threatened by the suggestion that families can let you down, or that some friends will always be willing to show up. Or that either decision may rest more on the depth of your relationship than the label you ascribe to it.

But for the most part ‘family’ feels like something other people do, without much direct relevance to my life – like supporting a football team, joining the military, or playing World of War Craft.

There are times, I admit, when I don’t help myself in this respect. I was once mortified to find an uncannily accurate description of the way I’ve lived my life in a newspaper review of Janet Street Porter‘s autobiography. It explained that after cutting all ties with her original family she found it easier and easier to up and leave for a new one whenever the replacements because uncomfortable or inconvenient. I’d never been able to put my finger on why my life had been so restless until I read that, but this is something that I have definitely been guilty of.

It’s something I’ve tried to address. I’ve reached an age now where I understand why old people tell you to hang on to the people who knew you when you were young. The one’s who know not just who you are but why you are.

When my granddad’s fifth wife died there were only six of us at her funeral. Nobody was the least bit affected by her death. Four of us were family, and therefore obliged to be there, and the couple who’d lived next door were only there for the free food. At least half of us did a pretty poor job at masking our attempts to suppress laughter as the vicar spoke about what a wonderful person she had been. It was the first and last time I recall anyone saying anything remotely nice about her. To be fair she’d certainly never said anything that was less than unpleasant about anyone else.

But after that I made it my aim to have people in my life who would choose to go to my funeral because they’d be sad to see me go rather than attending grudgingly because they felt ought to.

I think I’m doing okay so far. Forty people dressed up in black-tie last year to attend my birthday party, and a similar number came to my leaving-for-China-do last week. And that’s probably more important for the time being than who might care about my box of tat, or polishing my photograph, when I die.

It’s not that I’m trying to say that I miss or want a family, as I said, the idea of it seems completely alien to me. I can’t imagine being responsible for anyone other than Natalie Portman. It’s just that tonight I’m feeling a bit uneasy at the thought that, with nobody to keep my photograph, I’ll quickly be forgotten.

More on Family:

The Cult of The Family

A Few of My Favourite Things

My Grandad Always Hated Birds


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