The Circle of Life

Last weekend a number of events occurred on the same day:

  • The 10th anniversary of my aunt’s wedding
  • The birthday of her husband
  • The 100th birthday of my great-uncle 
  • The 2016th (?) anniversary of the Resurrection
  • The anniversary of a dear family friend’s death

As I sat in my uncle’s parish hall, celebratory prosecco in one hand, a smoked salmon canapé in the other and my cousin’s baby on my knee – born a full century after his great-great-uncle – it struck me that this was a rare and precious moment for someone like me. Rare because how many war veterans are still alive, and how many people ever turn 100? Rare because how often are we in the company of small children or the very old? Rare because how many people do you know who have written missives from two consecutive monarchs – the customary centenary card from the Queen (rather immodestly adorned with her own picture) and a typed letter of congratulation signed by George VI on the award of a military honour? Rare because seldom have I witnessed a family member fight back tears while describing the horrors my great-uncle must have gone through as a Japanese prisoner-of-war. Rare because, while posted to Hong Kong for work, my father happened upon the remains of my great-uncle’s prison on mainland China, and because my great-uncle’s first military posting was to Singapore, where I had unknowingly holidayed a few months back. Rare because how often are you dealt the cruel irony, or the hopeful comfort (depending on your point of view), of having to deal with the reminder of a friend’s untimely death, along with the celebration of someone else’s unlikely survival, both falling on the Easter Day of the triumph over death?

I am generally squeamish when people are ‘soppy’ about the war. I am uncomfortable with the ‘hero’ labels assigned to those who (these days) choose a career that might require them to – you know. And while this is not about me, I say this to pre-empt any similar qualms the reader might have: my great-uncle enlisted as a medical orderly (paramedic), and I have no doubt that without his contribution – whether that was given, or sacrificed, or wrenched away – the world would look a little different. I am in no less doubt that the war ruined his long life.

Could I imagine that the baby on my lap would ever receive from his mother two hand-written pages of joy that he was no longer, after a number of years, missing in action? It is hard to think so, but it would be foolish, historically complacent, to discount the possibility. A flick through the BBC news app will show that we still do not seem able to get on without assassinating each other.

It is love, and family, that bolster us against the horrors that seemed so remote from that Somerset village hall, decked with bunting that had been handmade for another cousin’s wedding. What does family mean for someone like me? I live independent of my parents, and spend the majority of my time away from the people I most love. I don’t encounter small children, I live in a flat, not a home, I rattle around Europe for work, speedwalk into the office and decamp straight to the pub afterwards; my incredibly weak will struggles to lay aside time to reflect, read, write, let alone bond with my nearest and dearest. Gatherings at my parents’ home are more often along the lines of brunch-is-about-to-be-delivered-military-style-at-precisely-12.36-and-if-the-salt’s-not-on-the-table-I-shall-be-quite-cross than the delightful communion of kindred spirits unmitigated by our human flaws.

Why then was Easter Sunday 2016 such a ray of light (metaphorically rather than meteorologically)? While the fear of others’ judgement is not easily removed in everyday life, there is something about the long familiarity with your family that allows you to be completely yourself. Even if I don’t know all my aunts and uncles well enough that I’d confide in them my deepest and darkest, there is something about their ‘affection from afar’ that puts me firmly into that comfort zone. Underneath a surface of in-jokes, pet peeves and bad temper that surfaces when the Christmas goose is a little bit overdone, there is something like a deep current that buoys us all, together. It is not manifest very often at all, except perhaps at these occasions of renewal: someone dies, someone is born, someone is wed. But that one day’s beam of photons is enough to make me think my emotionally shrivelled and self-centred life could do with an upgrade.

Thank you #MacDonLADs and Happy 100th Birthday to my great-uncle Harry MacDonald, B.E.M.

A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone…

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