Dancing with the family skeleton*

THREE writers – three different views on the idea of family:

Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

American comedian George Burns said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

Novelist Jay McInerney commented: “The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologising for our families.”

One can go on and on. One collection of online quotes has 3,827 to choose from – and that number is obviously only a tiny fraction of what is out there. The sardonic outweigh the sentimental, which probably bears out the truth of Tolstoy’s famous dictum..

Families – particularly parents – occupy the thinking time of most of us for much of our lives. Even if we try to get away from our family, we can’t really escape because we carry it with us in a cocktail of DNA, genes, nature and nurture. It may be a subtle, tasty and successful cocktail. Or it may be toxic.

So the best thing is (first) to try to understand and (second) to accept. Accept you can’t escape, understand what made your parents and what made you and eventually accept them and accept yourself.

If you can understand it helps with the acceptance. If you can’t accept, you are stuck with constant conflict in your own head, if not in your life. The sad thing is that too often you only understand, let alone accept, when it’s too late.

Thoughts about family come most to the fore when someone dies, and when that someone is a parent the thoughts are even more compelling and irresistible.

If it’s an uncle or an aunt or a godparent, or one of those relations whom you carried on seeing after childhood because you liked them, because you thought they “understood” you (which of course your parents didn’t), or because they were generous (self-interest is a compelling reason), the emotions will be simple sadness and nostalgia.

Losing a sibling is hard, because this is someone you have grown up with, and even if you have spent half your life warring with them, you have a shared past which is suddenly rent apart. There is nobody to share those exact memories.There will never again be somebody with whom you have the same unfettered conversations.

Losing a child is an unqualified and unquantifiable tragedy. It is truly said that it represents the death of hope. Many couples split up after the death of a child, and the relationships of those who stay together are inevitably and totally changed.

Losing a parent is a form of deracination. When you first lose a parent, particularly if that parent was the one you were closest to, you feel lost, cut adrift and possibly even angry. You weren’t ready to be abandoned.

But, usually, there is another parent, so there is a measure of continuity. You may learn things about the dead parent that help you to understand them better, or you may discover things about the surviving parent that you could never know while the first parent was there.

If you have had a consistently or intermittently bad relationship with the surviving parent, you face a difficult choice while they are alive: do you put the bad things behind you and try to be “a good child” or do you resent them for not being the one that died first?

Nothing prepares you for their death, even if you knew logically and practically that it was coming, even if you knew it would be a release for them and a relief for you.

I had what could at best be called a complicated relationship with my father, and his recent death was undoubtedly a release for a man who had been suffering from dementia and wanted to die. I made my peace with my father some years ago. The difficulties of the past are not forgotten, but part of a broader picture in which good memories outweigh bad. A friend, who also had a difficult relationship with her father, said she was surprised by how the memories came flooding back – that’s true.

It’s also true that the more you know about your parents the more you understand the people they were and their unique legacy.

It is only when we understand where we come from, and the complex mix of genes and upbringing that makes us what we are, that we can accept our parents as people, and perhaps understand ourselves.

We have just been to see the play Apologia, a family reunion drama which explores these issues – how children see their parents, how they judge without understanding, how children disappoint their parents, how our expectations lead us to make judgements that are not reasonable or fair, how we fail each other.

The premise is simple – two sons, one depressed and broken, one successful and a disappointment to the art historian mother, a 1960s rebel who has kept her ideals and her activism … but at what price?

We were struck by how differently the characters would be understood by different generations – how people of our age and experience would perceive the difficult, witheringly critical mother, while the young would sympathise with the sons.

And so it continues … Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was right when he wrote: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

Fanny Charles