It was such a wonderful line. Words that, ever since hearing, I have brooded upon. That I have toyed with in the same way you might run your tongue over a new crown, exploring its roughness and wrongness, anxious not to chomp down too hard on it, lest it prove to be more than you can bear. The trouble however, is I cannot recall where exactly I came across this quote, cannot recall its finer points. Was it on Stranger Things, the fearsomely brilliantly Netflix series my household has gorged itself on this summer? Or was it the painfully accurate indie film Lady Bird I saw with some girlfriends the other night? I can't be sure, but, in a nutshell, the idea that has chafed against me so is this: that family is always, and can only ever be, an experiment.
Family is the greatest institution of all; more than work, friendship or citizenship, being part of a family is the most defining role of our lives. Yet we receive no training at it. Unless we actively reject it, we can model ourselves only on what we see and what we know.
The weekend just gone presented me with rich ground to traverse the notion of family as trial and error. Away, not just with my husband and children, but my lesbian mothers, my father, his partner, my brother; we were all staying together in the same house. And as I dealt with my children's small insurrections, my teenage son slowly but surely extricating himself from our viscous embrace, my daughter's unanticipated grief at his successive rejections ("It's not that he doesn't love you any more, but when you're 13 and a half you probably won't want to have a bubble bath with a 9-year-old either."), I thought, I am fumbling in the dark here. And I looked at my parents and I wondered what sort of a job they thought I was doing. Whether they had always known what to do, what to say? Or whether they still search for the right words, still second-guess themselves as to how much to push and how much to hold back when it comes to my brother and me. And now that they must not only parent, but also grandparent, do they scramble to find their footing when it comes to their child's children? I looked, too, at my brother and marvelled at how I love him so deeply, how there is no other person on this earth than him who is made up of exactly the same stuff as me, and yet from front to back we couldn't be more different. And I looked at my husband, whom I chose, and at my parents' partners, who they chose, and considered the complications; all caught between one another, our loyalties sometimes at cross purposes, none of us related by blood, yet family through and through.
At one point during the weekend I was in the kitchen with all four of my parents when my father got out his phone and started showing me some photos from his recent South Island travels. I've never been to Franz Josef, I said. Yes, you have, he said. You would have been 1 day old. Well conceptually anyway. It was your mother's and my honeymoon, and we spent all our money on this one night in this flash hotel and got a bit pissed and . . . I looked around to see if anyone else was squirming, but no, only me. The worst thing about your family is you're kinda stuck with them, which, naturally, is their wonder, too.
The nuances and rhythms peculiar to the daytime world I inhabit were on my mind last week. Maggie said, working from home herself, that she identifies. "It's a world where people you would walk past in your old life actually bring something unexpected to your life. Where you take time to listen because you can catch up [with work] later when the 'workers' are in bed. Your day is more flexible and you have time and opportunity to put depth into your relationships. The time that others spend in traffic I can spend on hobbies like the garden. If more people could work from home I believe we would have happier families and certainly fewer traffic issues."