This year, I decided to go and stay with my family for a few days over the Christmas period. I don’t always go, and we haven’t always been in touch at Christmas, but this time, it turned out to be the gift that kept on giving.
In it’s way.
There has been a lot of turbulence within what’s left of my tribe, but in the last couple of years or so we have worked hard to get on and reform bonds, and for the most part, we now get on pretty well, but despite our silent resolution to shove past recriminations under the carpet, little reminders have a habit of rudely popping back up when I least expect it.
Christmas gift shopping for them has always been an anxious task for me. Making sure I buy for all family members and their broods, buy stuff that they’ll like, take along enough food/drink goodies to please/appease and not appear like a freeloader, whilst, especially this year, trying not to break the bank and get myself into debt over a celebration that is all but over come the end of Boxing Day.
I have no kids and no partner, so there is no his/hers sharing the cost comfort zone for this little black duck, but I give because I want to, I enjoy getting it right, and don’t keep tally.
I arrived on Christmas Eve to warm hugs and appreciative noises for my home made offerings, so it was all so far so good. The younger family members swamped me with hugs, warming my physical contact starved body, and my Grinchy little heart expanded in gratitude.
We ate a light meal, then went to midnight mass, then instead of going to bed, ended up playing a board game until the wee hours.
And then as Christmas Day started in traditional drunken form with a Buck’s Fizz breakfast, I blearily watched my sister’s family’s animated antics, and I could see where my largely suppressed, more exuberant side might have come from, had I felt safe enough to express it. Everyone pretty much laughs, banters, berates, bickers, scolds and insults another at a deafening pitch, and whilst the more negative exchanges have her casual cruelty stamped all over them, it is fascinating to me that no one takes offence for very long and all friction is usually over in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
It was very different for the two of us.
Maybe her hubby’s slightly saner, more chilled out genes makes for forgiving hearts and sturdier psyches.
And after lunch we play another round of Risk (oh, the irony), and as the competitive, combative screeching reaches eardrum popping proportions, the poor little EMO soul who is dating one of my nieces locks eyes with me in amused despair as it to say ‘Sweet Jesus Christ, is it always like this?’.
We grin amidst the pandemonium and I shrug and reply telepathically. ‘Yes! But it’s fun, and only for a few days. Have another drink, it’ll help!’
Then my brother in law comes in with a tray of snacks and the grin freezes on my face.
I bought that tray over thirty years ago.
‘Sista! It’s your turn! Not that you have much to play for now!’ jeers my sister, and I turn back to the table and focus on getting my arse kicked for another hour or so.
And when I pass their bedroom on the way back from the bathroom, I spot my sewing basket. The one my second boyfriend bought me for my 20 something birthday.
I avert my eyes.
I don’t want to think about this today.
I return to the battlefield, have another drink and forget all about it.
The next day we have the Cinderella panto to go to (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantomime).
In all honesty, pantomimes are really not my thing but I didn’t want to appear anti social, so I agreed to go along.
Cue lots of ‘It’s behind you!’, men dressed as ugly sisters, women dressed as princes, z list soap actors and X factor stars, ‘Oh, no you didn’t!’, aged back in the day TV entertainers, cheesy jokes and terrible chart song covers, boob jokes, slapstick and audience participation.
The kids loved it.
It went on for three hours and I found the whole thing absolutely gruelling. This is one of those times when I have to fight hard to look as if everything is alright, when inside I’m dying and desperate to run outside, hijack a passing farming vehicle and head off down the M40 home. I know this sounds dramatic and to all intents and purposes I just have to stay on my seat until it finishes and not kill anyone, but my clan are now hyper vigilant to any negative changes in my demeanour, so I have to act my socks off, laugh, sing and look like I’m having a marvellous time and not wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else.
If I’d know it was going to be this grim, I’d have offered to babysit my eldest niece’s cute but snot nosed little son, or at the very least licked his sipper cup in the hope that I’d contract his cold and be allowed to stay at home and down port in front of the TV.
But I did it.
As we head home, I’m not the only one who’s drained. The boyfriend decides to crash, so a duvet is brought down so that he’s not too cold on the sofa.
Again, I go a bit cold. It is MY duvet that I bought for my first ever flat share in London, all those years ago.
There are also more recent things that have been left at Chez Big Sis, and never seen again.
Books, hats, earrings, and tupperware boxes that I know I’ll never get back.
And who knows, the place is such a mess half the time, it’s easy for a visitor’s odd possession to get lost in the swirling magma of shit on the floor, unnoticed until they eventually arrive home, but I know some are accidentally kept and absorbed into the household, so I am careful to remember to take everything home with me nowadays.
But losing the odd thing doesn’t bother me that much.
It was the en mass ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ confiscation of pretty much all of my worldly goods in the late 80’s that was the most devastating thing for me.
I had been abroad for a few years with a boyfriend, and with their permission, had left my stuff in their attic for safe keeping until I got home. I think they had thought, or indeed hoped that I’d emigrate our there so when i arrived home three years later, after pretty much having a trail run version of my recent woes, jobless, skint and on the verge of a breakdown, they met me at the airport and I sensed that they weren’t exactly pleased to see me.
When I arrived at their house, I realised why.
Everywhere I looked, I saw my own household items, books, furniture and ornaments embellishing the rooms of their new home. I was shocked but when caught staring at them in disbelief, their faces would set like stone in grim collusion as it to say ‘And? What’s the problem exactly?’
I’ll never forget how cheated, alone and unwanted I felt at that moment.
I did however get about a quarter of my possessions back in the form of clothes and shoes (probably because they wouldn’t have fitted her), but fashion had moved from early 80’s glitz and excess to late 80’s Doc Marten and torn jeans casual minimalism, so were of precious little used to me.
I stayed with them for the maximum of four weeks as I had no money, and as soon as I got a job, I was chivvied out to find a place to stay.
And on leaving, instead of receiving a big hug and the rest of my things back, I was presented with a bill.
A bill, if you please.
Consisting of a cost per day of how much it would have cost me at that current market rate had I rented a room from them (which inadvertently I had been doing), plus food, plus a share of all the household bills. They didn’t even allow for their own children, it was all divided between the three of us.
I’m amazed that they didn’t add VAT onto it.
And a month to the day of leaving and within hours of receiving my first pay check I was not only chased for some payment but also asked to buy my father a new video player because his was broken and essentially it was made clear that it was my turn to pull my financial weight and pitch in.
And unlike my sister and father, I didn’t own anything other than the clothes I brought back with me.
I literally felt that I had escaped from a frying pan and leapt into an incinerater, as if I’d thought I’d been lonely in another continent, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the way I felt in the boney, cold, reluctant embrace of my family.
An embrace that quickly withdrew when I refused to buy the video player.
Thirty years on, after years of anger, angst, estrangement and eventual reconciliation, I’ve tried to put it all behind me and move on, but it doesn’t help when I see constant physical reminders on my sister’s shelves and in her cupboards.
I think they love me now, or as much as they can, and they have a four storey houseful of stuff, so why the continual obsession with my things?
Christmas was nice though. Genuinely fun, warm, loving and kind.
Let me make it clear that I don’t think I was entirely without fault during those turbulent times. I was angry, resentful, bolshy, had a vicious tongue and was pretty much out of my mind.
I just wish I understood what was going on here. Do they think I’ve ponced off of them in the past? That I’m a secret millionaire? That after all these years, I STILL owe them?
I know that sis used to be a bit obsessed with one of our aged aunts, and would wonder out loud as to whether she had any money stashed away.
I wonder if she and her husband ask each other the same question about me? Do they really care about me or am I just a potential cash cow for them and/or their kids when I kick the bucket?
Fucking chilling isn’t it?
Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.
Then further clarification comes to light.
My middle niece moved into her first flat share this summer, so the last time I was here, I dropped off an old video player, a nice old blanket box and some soft furnishings for her as she didn’t have much by way of possessions.
So on Boxing Day, we were all watching an old Christmas movie and I asked her how the flat was going.
‘Oh I love it Aunty Sista! We all get on so well and it’s nice having a bit of privacy from this lot’ she replied, shoving her brother off the sofa with a slippered foot as he howled in protest.
‘And did you get that stuff I left you? Hope it all fits in with your deco?’
There was a momentary uncomfortable silence, then she left out an awkward pealing laugh.
‘Oh, you’ll have to ask Mum about that’ she chuckled, ‘she decided to keep everything for their bedroom!’
And as they all chortled along, silently urging me to share the joke, I fake laugh along with them, vaguely appalled.
For God’s sake, it’s the kid’s first flat! She barely has a stick of furniture to her name! WTF?! You can barely see their bedroom carpet for stuff, it looks like someone has upended a car boot sale onto it!
They’re starting to remind me of a domestic version of ‘The Thing’; I sit tight thinking that if their dog to start whining or heading for the door, I’ll be seconds behind it, presents in one hand and car keys in the other.
And then I realise that whatever this shit is about, it’s not about lack of love. My sis and her husband adore their brood, and only want the best for them, so who knows where it stems from. Our impoverished childhood, years of scrimping and saving to support and raise four kids, some kind of psychological disorder, who knows, maybe they’ll end up on one of those ‘crazy hoarders’ documentaries, burrowed under piles of newspapers and surrounded by tut, but a warm rush of hope suddenly cascades over my scabby, old trauma wounds.
Maybe their taking all my stuff wasn’t about me.
Maybe they genuinely thought that they weren’t doing anything wrong. That if I planned to stay that I’d have offered it to them anyway.
Maybe they have always loved me after all, even if at the same time, they resented my freedom and ability to go away and travel, and couldn’t wait for me to come back, if only to be able to pitch in financially.
I sucked my teeth, rolled my eyes and shook my head reprimandingly at my sister whilst replying to my niece ‘Charming, hey? Don’t worry hon, next time I’ll deliver stuff to your door and not leave it here with this grabby lot!’
My sister adopted a look of mock innocence whilst winking at her daughter and heading out to the kitchen to put the dinner on.
It’s time I got over this painful memory.
It wasn’t and isn’t personal.
It’s behind me.
But if she so much as glances at my new blender, before I get it safely into the boot of my car, there’ll be hell to pay.