Families. They are the best, aren’t they? The one bunch of people bound together by ties of blood or marriage, who stand by you no matter what.
The mother, who forgives her son his decades of neglect, because in her eyes he can do no wrong. The father who thinks nothing of liquidating his life savings so that his daughter can go to university abroad. The wife who stands silently by her husband in the worst of times because it would never occur to her to bail and run.
The husband who spends months planning a surprise party for his wife as a landmark birthday approaches. The aunt who steps in when mom has passed on and the children need a mother-figure in their lives. The kids who patiently explain how email and facetime work to their grandparents so that they can keep in touch even though they live thousands of miles apart.
Oh yes, families are the best. Except, of course, when they are the worst.
And we know that they can be all kinds of worst. At the moment of this writing, we seem to be gripped by the saga of the Mukerjea-Bora clan, peopled by absconding fathers, abandoned children, marriages, non-marriages and re-marriages, half-siblings, step-children, step-siblings, and more dysfunctional relationships that you can shake a stick at.
And that’s before we get to the murder/disappearance of a beautiful young girl, poised at the cusp of what could have been a wonderful life full of love and happiness, with her mother/sister cast as the prime suspect. It’s heart-breaking stuff, no matter how the case actually pans out.
So, is it any wonder that no matter how hard we try, we simply can’t drag our eyes away from the car-crash of a murder investigation that is re-run in slow motion every night on our TV screens? As we stare with horrified fascination at the sorry spectacle that unfolds before us at prime time, I am sure that all of us, in some corner of our hearts, are thanking our stars for our own relatively uncomplicated family ties.
But as Leo Tolstoy wrote in the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And when you look around – among your friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues – it is hard to find even a dozen families that are really and truly happy.
Sure, they all tick the usual boxes. Dad has a great job. Mom works but not as hard as Dad, so that she can be home for the kids in the evening. Lovely house, sparkling with the care and attention bestowed upon it. Big cars to go on driving vacations. Kids who do well at school, and are good at tennis/piano/drama (take your pick). Grandparents who are part of the happy mix, shielded from the social isolation that often comes with old age. On the face of it, all of this builds up to a pretty picture.
But scratch the surface and – barring a few exceptions – the veneer of perfection cracks all too easily. Dad is coping with his mid-life crisis by having it off with the secretary ("You are only as young as the woman you feel," he guffaws to his mates at the club). Mom is turning a blind eye to it in the hope it goes away, going through her days and nights anaesthetised with a combination of prescription pills and copious amounts of red wine. The kids, who in the manner of kids everywhere, see all but say nothing, seethe with a helpless anger against both parents. Oh, and as for the big house, Dad and his sister are locked in a deadly battle to ensure that the other sibling doesn’t end up inheriting it, though you’d never guess it from the lovely Rakhi messages they send to each other on their Facebook walls.
Unhappy families abound and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There is the daughter who resents the fact that she always comes second-best to the son simply because she is a daughter, and carries that hard knot of sorrow/anger in her heart throughout her life. There is the mother-in-law who loathes the new daughter-in-law for the hold she has on her son. There is the wife who is fed up with her husband for his unquestioning obedience to his mother. There is the husband who can’t understand why his wife is always running home to Mummy at the slightest sign of trouble. There are parents who abandon their children. There are children who abandon their parents. And thus, the sorry circle goes.
Oh yes, families can be the absolute worst. Except, of course, when they are the best. There is the niece who turns up to keep vigil at the bedside of her childless uncle. There is the grandson who relocates so that he can spend time with his grandparents in their twilight years. There is the mother-in-law who donates her kidney to her daughter-in-law (don’t sneer; I have actually seen that happen).
I know which kind of family I would rather be a part of. But alas, we all seem destined to have a little bit of both kinds in our lives. And, given the alternative, perhaps that’s not so bad.
From HT Brunch, September 13
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