Having what you never had: on family and nostalgia
He’s writing about storytelling, about nostalgia, about the passing of time, about families. Personal things edged with poignancy. But it’s not until I read the defining line that I realise the relevance of his words for me. In a recent piece in the The New Yorker, Michael Chabon, whose fiction I have always loved, says:
“Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience – always momentary, always fragile – of having what you lost or never had…”
I’d like to tell you about my experience of this sensation. It too is about family. (Also, if you haven’t read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, stop reading this immediately. You’ve got your priorities all wrong.)
Two weeks ago, on a still, end-of-summer night just outside of Cape Town, I sat down to a family dinner. It was a small affair: parents, their two kids, the kids’ partners, the partners’ parents. There were also a few close friends who were in town from the US, and my sister and me. Small. About 14 people.
Mike (of the first set of parents) had made paella, with the prawns placed to one side because Peet (of the partners) is allergic to seafood. There was wine, warmth, a sense of imminent celebration: we were gathered for a wedding (John’s, one of said kids and also my cousin). As we started to eat, a spider web of conversation was spun, its threads fine and firm, connecting person to person in every direction.
Around us, the walls were saturated with smiling faces. Evidence of countless holidays in this seaside place, not just of this family – my step-family, technically, which my father married into when I was five – but of their extremely large and incredibly close extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends who feel like family. There were photographs of meals together, sundowners on the deck, of days on the beach, noses freckled and hair windswept. Over the course of the weekend, Peet joked that you know you’ve made it into the family when your face appears on the walls too, and that a few exes have remained over the years. Exes are not the only proof of time’s passing: darker hair in the adults and pictures of children who are now in their 20s and 30s tell of the 15 years that this family has come here to celebrate – birthdays, weddings, almost every Christmas – and to be.
I picked up my glass of wine and sat back, already sensing a feeling that would take root over the days that followed but that I couldn’t yet define. This was family as I had never – or rarely – experienced it. The only thing that came close was the year I spent in Toronto when I was 26 but that was different: a connection with close family, not the extended variety I was finding here.
One bird, one ocean
For most of my life, my concept of family has equated to two. Two beds, two places set at the dinner table, two pairs of shoes, ready to go for a walk. My mother and me. There’s a father, a host of beloved half-siblings, and a slew of my own aunts and uncles and cousins that span five countries and half a dozen cities between Melbourne and Vancouver. But in Johannesburg, and for almost a 1,000km radius around it, my family equates to two.
I’ve created an extended family in other ways, through lifelong friendships and a network of love. My experience in Cape Town, however, of watching dozens of people interact as the weekend unfolded, bound by blood and known to each other since birth, who’d seen life’s major milestones together and all the ordinary, freckled, windswept days in between, felt like an anthropological study. Witnessing it, and being considered part of it, moved me.
My mouth constantly seemed to be uttering words of thanks for this. “But you are family,” was always the response, said casually, as if the speaker were stating the obvious. But this isn’t family as I know it, I didn’t mange to say. This is having what I never had.
Was what I felt nostalgia? The word never occurred to me, but the experience was as acute, momentary and fragile as Chabon describes. It wasn’t painful, merely present. Just there. An awareness I couldn’t shake. That this was something exceptional, something not mine. And that what I have every day is just as lovely.