Family: Gaps and Connections

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Dr Suess

I found this quote by Dr. Seuss ages ago. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it but it seems quite apt at this moment.

I was at my aunt and uncle’s recently for my cousin’s 50th birthday. It’s coming up for 2 years since the first contact I had with them after 35 years, since my father died in 1974, and I started to piece together the emotions and events of the day.

I hadn’t put much score on having family since I don’t know when, until I met my aunt and uncle again. They, my aunt in particular – his sister, were a very close link to my father; a big step towards filling a gap in my sense of who I am.

So what happened to that gap, the hole, in my life that was ever-present though I wasn’t always conscious of it; that space left behind when those closest to me – parents – weren’t there, that loss of a sense of identity, my (shakey) solid foundations gone? I think I may almost have left a bit of it behind.

Connection My other cousin died about 3 years ago and her son and daughter, my second cousins, were both at the party. I’d met one before but not the son. The man she was about to marry was also there. I discovered that not only did he have a boat about 20 minutes drive from where I live and that he and my cousin went there often, there is also a bench on the path overlooking the marina where she liked to sit and look at the boats. It’s dedicated to her. It’s somewhere I can go and sit and feel closer to her.

It was that sense of a link to her that led me to thinking about those links elsewhere in life. I lost touch with my mother’s side of the family in 1988 after she died. Somehow that wasn’t quite the same, she had been around longer for me to identify with as a person. There is still a gap there – the gap of loss. Loss of mother and loss of any blood connection to her. The sense of loss for my father feels bigger and deeper. Any connection I might have had with him seemed to have been severed long ago – during some of my most defining years as an adolescent.

I can’t speak for my brother in any of this; he would have handled it very differently to me from an emotional perspective. It wasn’t something we ever discussed as far as I remember.

The breakdown of my parents marriage seemed to shatter an illusion that I’d taken for granted. My world seemed to fall apart in shards the day they told my brother and I that dad was moving out. I felt like I’d been hit with a sledgehammer. I was 13.

Although my brother and I were both well aware that there were problems and our parents weren’t getting on; the heightened emotion, the rows and silences, from both of them, that often started after we’d gone to bed, I never contemplated the absence of one of them from the family home permanently. My parents were just that – my parents – they would always be there. Wouldn’t they? I think it was one of the first times the full realisation that my parents were … people!People … human beings like all the other human beings I saw every day around me. People … like my teachers, like my friends parents, like the shop keeper up the road, like me! They had problems and difficulties just like I’d been having.

Gap I don’t know how long it took to get used to the absence of my father. That’s a big word, isn’t it? A-b-s-e-n-c-e. My brother and I saw dad regularly for a while and then visits began to tail off. We were getting older and finding other things to do with our teenage years. It still hurts me to this day to think of the times I got out of seeing dad and the ways I did it and how he might have felt at the rejection of those moments. It wasn’t often I did this but it must have hurt him. I don’t ever remember him talking to me about it though.

Gap A similar thing happened with my mother when I left home to go into the RAF. I had left the family home too, just like my dad. Mum was obviously not coping well with either me or my brother up to this point and even threatened to give both of us to social services once This was after dad had left. The impact that statement had on me has stayed with me for over 40 years! Perhaps she meant it at the time, perhaps not. Either way, I think it was a measure of how she wasn’t coping with us on her own. I’m not surprised with 2 adolescents on her hands, one following hot on the heels of the other in terms of age.

Life with mum was good and she did the very best for us but there were some things that put distance between us. My reaction, on leaving home, was to almost pretend it wasn’t there. I often didn’t call my mother for months at a time. I went home on leave but really used the house as a base, I guess.

I didn’t have much contact with my father during that time either. He wrote to me a few times but after a while I neglected to write back and then I wasn’t writing or phoning at all. He wrote to tell me grandma had died but I don’t think I even replied. I wouldn’t have known what to say. I didn’t go to the funeral. Just over 2 years later he was dead. I was 19.

I remember feeling a sense of love for him once, something that continued at first after he’d left home. That feeling seemed to tail away and I realised I couldn’t have him in the way I wanted to. He’d started to live a very different life-style by now. The love faded to indifference and some of the first bricks in my walls of defence went into place. I started to keep people out as well as keeping myself in. I also had other good reason to have a wall of defence as I was, by then, growing up gay in the attitudes, prejudices, and lack of understanding of the 1960’s and 70’s. I was terrified of being ‘found out’. Being in the RAF didn’t help and the walls grew stronger because of that as well. Drugs helped numb me from having to think about it or deal with it.

As the years went on and I started to realise I missed having my dad, I recognised even more the traits in me that came from him. It was my only sense of connection to him. I had no photographs and I was increasingly unsure of my memory of him, particularly of what he looked like. However tentative a connection it was, the sticky tape, not the first, was being applied to the holes, the gaps, in my life.

I was using bits of flawed memory to shore up the gaps in my sense of identity and belonging. To some extent it worked but I had no-one who knew dad anymore to talk to about him. All the real connections had gone. Gap 3 Perhaps part of my roaming life-style came from this as well. With no sense of belonging to a family, I also didn’t really feel I belonged anywhere. I’d moved every few years from the age of 10 and didn’t know which place to call ‘home’. I had no roots to speak of.

Connection I built up my own roots in my own way but it was an all-encompassing root called England. Moving to Goldhanger changed all that. It felt more like ‘home’ than anywhere else I had ever lived. We made friends very quickly and lived through some of their trials and tribulations with them, cementing relationships quite firmly. After the break up of my relationship with my partner I realised I needed to move back to the village after spending a year away. I was very fortunate in securing somewhere to live and have been here ever since – I don’t want to move away again. Not yet.

Gap My partners family very rapidly became ‘my’ family. i really felt a part of it with him and with them. I looked forward to them having children, I discussed things with them that they didn’t want to take to their parents. I was like step-dad, uncle and big brother rolled into one. But I was always aware I wasn’t part of their family. I was transient and sure enough I left in the end.

A big part of me has wondered whether I really did the right thing. If I can get on with my ex-partner as well as I do now and can discuss things openly and without any fear of damaging things, why couldn’t I stay and work it out? These are questions I’m going to have to ponder later. Suffice to say I didn’t.