A dull start to the day here has got me thinking about things, family in particular.
There is an old saying that ‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’. That’s right of course, as from the moment we are born, we are stuck with the family that surrounds us, good or bad.
There is not only your mum and dad to consider. Grandparents, uncles and aunts; cousins, close or distant. And the families of their wives or husbands too. Before you know it, that family that once seemed so small has become very large indeed, and it is hard to get your head around who is who, and where they fit in.
As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, there were other adults called aunt or uncle. But they were not relatives, just friends or neighbours that had become so familiar, they were accepted into your wider family. Then there were their children, and their brothers and sisters too.
By the time I was ten years old, I was hardly able to keep track of everyone who was actually in my family, or attached to it in some way. But on the plus side, with two exceptions, they all lived within walking distance then, so would be seen all the time. With that familiarity came a level of understanding of where they fitted in.
But that was only my mum’s family. I still had another one to get to grips with.
My dad’s family lived some distance away, but car ownership and regular weekend visits meant that I could get a handle on who they were too. More aunts and uncles, more cousins, more wives and husbands. It didn’t take me long to realise that any meeting of both families, perhaps at a wedding or funeral, was going to involve trying to remember a great many names and faces. As I was paraded in front of adults who remarked how big I was getting, or how much I looked like my mum’s brother, I scanned my brain to try to recall who they were, and even what side of my family they came from.
I once estimated, that including the families of the men and women married to my aunts and uncles, and some great aunts and uncles who seemed very ancient to me, we could probably muster almost two hundred people, in the same room. Fortunately, that never happened, as there were always a few who couldn’t make it to a particular occasion. Had everyone actually turned up at once, my young brain would never have been able to cope.
The modern world has given us the Internet, and with it the facility to research family trees, and compile them as a document. But this doesn’t allow for the many who were not actually related by blood, but were just as important, and still are. Back then, all we had were photo albums. Baby photos, holiday snaps, and pictures of weddings, mostly taken by professionals at the time. Huge groups of well-dressed people smiling at the camera, many of them completely unknown to me. My mum would sit me down and go through them. Her finger traced the faces as she told me who they were, and how they were related, if at all.
I thought it was all sinking in, but as I look at them more than fifty years later, I am alarmed to discover how few of their names I can still remember, and even less how they were related to me. Some families are huge, and even though I was an only child, I was in one of those huge families.
Now I am so much older, many of those people in the photos are long dead. I have become the oldest male member of that extended family, and many of my younger relatives are no doubt looking at photos that include me, and wondering who I am.
It strikes me that not that much has changed.