As long as I can remember I have never had a “conventional” family. Neither of my parents came from families that were particularly close – emotionally or geographically; my mum’s family having moved to England from India when she was a young age and my father having emigrated from Holland after a substantial period at medical school. Both of my parents were the oldest of their siblings and neither of them maintained much of a relationship with them. As my parents divorced when I was about 4 or 5 years old, there was not much of a chance (and even less of an intention) for them to provide me with any siblings and so I remained an only child hopping across the stepping-stones between parents as they separated and experimented with new partners and families.
In the absence of socialising with siblings or cousins or children from family friends, I was to all intensive purposes a cripplingly shy child. To a ridiculous extent at times. I remember being sat alone at lunch time when I was no older than 5 or 6, surrounded by a lot of other well-socialised kids with their generic packed-lunch boxes. They had the usual: Ham sandwiches on white bread, packet of crisps, fruit yoghurt, chocolate bar, carton of juice. I had salad sandwiches on brown bread (organic no less!), no yoghurt or sweets but a cellophane wrapped mango cut in half and into squares. I had just started to eat the sweet, juicy and delicious fruit when a girl sat to my right asked incredulously “what’s that??” I remember freezing, much like a startled mouse in the presence of a cat and wonder what to say (explaining that it was a mango was somehow not an option!
I remained very still and very quiet, even when she persisted and asked again. Eventually her friend sat opposite to her said, “oh just leave her” and added dismissively, “It’s probably a gone-off watermelon or something”. Welcome to the kids in Toxteth, ladies and gentlemen! I remained rather shy throughout primary school and for the first two years of secondary school, although it subsided considerably to allow me to make some friendships and answer simple questions from strangers.
The thing was, there was no denying that I was always rather “different”. Having been alone to amuse myself for considerable periods of time whilst young, and having quite interesting – if not eccentric – parents, I had a rather active imagination and played acted-out imaginary games in public well into year two, and thereafter, in private. I never felt particularly lonely in primary school, when I wad playing on my own, rather I was in my own little impenetrable world which I suppose now, was a very instrumental buffer for the years to come. Nevertheless, I noticed that certain children slowly gravitated towards me. At the time it unnerved me a little, as I didn’t really understand why. I suppose my disregard for conventions then, was appealing to them. Especially to those that were getting a raw deal in the usual playground politics (i.e. not in “the popular group”).
My mother soon moved in with her former male best friend who turned into a sort of ambiguous step-father-like role. His two daughters lived in London with their mother, but I had always been socialised with them when possible, from the day I was born. For a period of time, we formed what was known as “The Tough Girls”. I remember fabric painting t-shirts for us all and proudly presenting them to the girls when we were reunited again. The eldest was 2 years older than me, the youngest was two years younger than me. I was perfectly in the middle. My mum’s relationship with their father was complicated to say the least and my own dear father was left very much alone and grieving. This is not to say that my mother is the villain and my father the victim. The whole affair was very complicated and not necessarily an issue for discussion here.
The result of a messy break, was years of disjointed Christmases; one year I would spend it with my dad and New Year with my mum, her partner and the kids and the next year it would transpire the opposite way round. Although there were some very lovely aspects to those Christmases, they could never really be described as a jolly period for me. There is something so sad remembering back to my dad and I sat alone at the dining table to our solitary Christmas dinners. I was always very much a daddy’s girl, but even at that age I could sense that a daughters love was not enough to keep the spirit’s up at Christmas. Conversely at my mum’s it was not so quiet, but the noise was rarely consistently jovial. The girls lived to wind each other up which would inevitably result in tears which would wind their dad up, which would cause my mum to make some failed attempt at mediation which would wind everyone up. Usually I would be turned on for not having made a problem and “sitting on the fence” at some point. There was also the competition of presents and their value, which was not just a past time of the kids but a preoccupation of my stepdad with my mum: “But how much are you going to be spending on my kids?”
By my early teens, my mum had left him, I saw nothing of his kids – despite having know them from birth and my dad had found a woman who lived to take his money and make him unhappier. Needless to say Christmases did not improve and continued their non-joyous bearings when my mother kicked me out and moved to another city with her new partner. Ding-dong-merrily-on-high!
Having left home over four years ago, the impact this has all had on my perception of Christmas has been potent. I hate being the “Scrooge” figure among my friends – it really doesn’t suit. However, when I can honestly say that I cannot remember a truly happy and enjoyable Christmas, it is bound to make its mark into future feelings about the over-hyped holiday season. It’s beautifully (if not commercially) painted as a warm, loving, family occasion where people laugh, talk and get merry around burning fire-places. The truth is that I yearn for this. It would be a pleasure I cannot describe to enjoy a feast with beloved family members, playing old-school games like charades and Pictionary while sozzled of mulled wine and merriment. It is the cliché picture that causes me to envy others who do have big families and running jokes that resurface every year when everyone gets together.
Envy and jealousy are such ugly emotions. I rarely entertain them for very long and instead repress the whole concept of Christmas by concentrating on something else. This year, however, I have been consciously concentrating on my whole “Christmas phobia”. I shall never have a “conventional family” but I do now have great relations in the untraditional and eccentric bunches that qualify as family. Although my mum and her husband shall never join with my dad and his partner (not the awful woman aforementioned) this is not necessary. I essentially have two homes; two very loving and supportive homes. Screw convention, that works for me.
Having considered the whole Christmas period I have worked out that I will be able to fit in time with my mum, my dad, my boyfriend and his family and my best friend. Now I can’t think of anything better than this. Having a broken family has been hard, upsetting and unsettling at times, but it now makes me much more grounded and settled in my own skin than I could have ever been without it.
The key to surviving the cracks, is jumping over them and not dwelling on what’s down them.