A Point of View: Family, reunions and the passage of time
Family get-togethers take on a whole new meaning as you get older, says Adam Gopnik.
June is the month of weddings, which trail family reunions along behind them like bridal trains or garlands. My own family had our own 10-year reunion, just last week in the rocky shore of Maine - none of us lives there, but it seemed a decent gathering point to get to from all the places where the centrifugal force of modern life had flung us.
It was a reunion only of the immediate family, but my immediate family could look, to outsiders, well… whatever the opposite of immediate is - hyperbolically extended, I suppose. I am, you see, one of six siblings. We mostly married young, and some by now have married twice. We often had children early, and those children, following in this weird Jewish hillbilly tradition, have by now had children too - so that these days the immediate family consists of 35 people, ranging in age from six months to 80 years, and in vocation from college professors - which is rather the family trade - to carpenters and scene painters and even one private investigator, albeit a Canadian private eye, a more subdued and delicate apostle of that hard boiled craft. We have an Asian wing, with our Kim Soo, and a Celtic one, with the smallest baby Teslyn.
Mine is a crazy family, but then they all are. One instance? Well, my grandparents met just as my parents were getting married - and my mother's mother so liked my father's father that they had an affair, and then divorced their spouses and married each other. So I grew up with one set of grandparents, mother's mother married to father's father, a cartoon version of my own parents.
My family tends to collapse in on itself in this bizarre way. They - we! - troop down to breakfast as what my wife mutteringly refers to as The Milling Mob, in jogging pants and outsized tee-shirts, to sit in small groups with coffee and renew old arguments, some lifelong, about books and records and ice hockey and the like. After milling, we tend to clump - my wife's word, again - sitting in small groups, trying and failing to make outdoor plans for the day, and then going off to read or sit by the pool and tease and talk some more.
We're highly analytic in the small, micro instance, and anti-analytic in the macro ones. I mean by that that everyone talks and jokes about what we've eaten and seen and read, but how we all got here, and what we are all missing in life, or long for, is not a subject. Jokes and teases are the currency. Confessions and ancient quarrels rarely appear - or, if you ask my wife, the confessions and ancient quarrels have by now been so sublimated into the jokes and teases that no one any longer recognises their true origin.
Still, when I watch the Irish or "southern gothic" family movies, yielding up their full Meryl Streep of family recrimination and family grievance about Grandma's money and Grandpa's drinking, I am startled and grateful at the general good humour of my own. My wife's own family, infinitely neater, and more polite, who come to breakfast shiny in robes and dressing gowns, bury old sadness beneath the sweetness, until the sadness - old marital discord or disappointment - comes out sourly, or, worse, never does except in whispers.
Whispering is not a strong activity in my family. When I read, on a recent London trip, John Cleese's memoir of his upbringing in Weston-super-Mare with his very English family - where no one ever said anything to anyone about anything at all that had ever happened that might have made them feel any emotion of any kind whatever - I feel grateful too, even if I could have done with a little more silence in my own.
But the inescapable material of any family reunion, British or American, Jewish or Celtic, is always the same - each offers a hair-raising, or hair-losing, seminar on the effects of time on the human body and soul, and especially on the difference between aging and growing. To put it bluntly, everyone at the reunion under 35 is still growing, physically and mentally. Everyone over 35 is merely aging, physically and mentally, too.
The under-30s' growth delights us - look at how lean and hungry Adrian looks now that he's 30, while Andres at 28 has grown a hugely impressive braided beard that makes him look half like a dwarf-warrior from Tolkien and half like Van Gogh's postman. Our own teenagers, Luke and Olivia - at the last reunion, 10 years ago, sweet-faced small ones - are revealed to us as archetypal New York City teens. The Vampire Twins, they're instantly nicknamed by their cousins or else simply called Edward and Bella, in tribute to their pale skin, omnipresent sunglasses, black clothes and, calm air of apparently slightly sinister, knowing cool - while we, their parents, of course, can still see only sweet faced small ones.
The over-40s' aging distresses us, or would, if we were not alarmed to be complicit in it. Bald spots grow, old beards whiten, and waistlines expand… Fortunately, the really scary edge of aging seems to get pushed back 10 years every time we get together. Ten years ago, the 40-somethings seemed worrying old. Now they look bright as pennies, and it is only the over-60s who have to worry about no longer being young. The way that this frontier of aging somehow recedes at each family reunion is a scientific wonder. (My wife insists that she is aging backwards, like Benjamin Button). I don't know how it happens but it does. It's a great relief. It must have something to do with the fourth dimension.
The dividing line between those growing and those aging is made still clearer by some tellingly contradictory behaviour - those who are actually growing try to persuade everyone that they are just aging, while those who have actually aged try to insist that they have merely grown. "Oh, I've given up smoking weed," an under-30 may yawn over the afternoon. " I've just, sort of… outgrown it, I guess." The aging listener wants to say, and doesn't: No! -- you've learned something; inebriation isn't worth the time it takes. Those of us who are aging, on the other hand, try to persuade each other that we're really just growing. "I've given up tennis," one of us may say urgently. "It just doesn't, I don't know, interest me any more. I don't have the time for it, given everything else in my life right now." The truth - that you have gotten too old to play it - is as unsayable as it is self-evident.
It was a good week, though, ending with a movie-worthy trip to a little honkytonk amusement park on the pier at the nearby beach. I don't know if you have them still in Britain, but here amusement parks on ocean piers are zones of timelessness. The rides never change - in fact, they seem to have rusted in place - and the people running the rides don't change - they seem to have rusted in place too - and all of us rejuvenate through the elixir of fear and panic and laughter about them. The amusement park is an equal opportunity infantaliser - it renews our childish pleasures even while exploiting them cynically. The knowledge that the carnies are hoping to get you to pay three dollars for a single shot at an undersized target gives an acid sub-taste to all the spun sugar and fried dough they sell.
In the long struggle with time, the family is the only clock we have to follow our own passage within it, and occasionally to stop it. Relationships fixed early remain fixed, and then all together we watch the nightly fireworks. You see them before you hear them, even close up. I had forgotten that, even when you're right on top of them, sound moves so much more slowly than light, that there is still a small but discernable gap between the lights exploding and the boom of the gunpowder that set them off. The showers of bright sparkles and stars comes first, the child-traumatising explosion just after. I used to have to take my own now-15-year-old vampiric daughter away and hold her to my chest.
Families find themselves in the tiny space between the light we see and the roar we hear. In family life, if we are lucky at all, the brightness comes first, and the bitterness some time after. We try to keep the memory of the fireworks while forgetting the fire that makes them work. Fortunate families try to pry open and extend, somehow, the little interval of time between the bright light and the big boom, until it gives the illusion of being large enough to live in. Reunited, together in numbers, families extend that instant for the length of a wedding. Sometimes, if we're lucky, it can even last a week.
A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
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