As I was growing up, I would often listen to my grandmother and my mom exchange bits of news about the extended family. The tales always seemed incomplete to me until I could put a face to the people in the stories and I would invariably ask one of them who they were talking about. And this would lead to long tracking of the family tree, with them ensuring at each step that I knew at least one of the characters they were referring to, so that I could see the linkages.
Think about it. Today, in the rare occurrence of our spouse or child asking “who is this xyz?”, we invariably answer with a “arey leave it… he/she is a distant cousin/uncle/aunt/niece/nephew.. you don’t know that part of the family… I haven't heard of/from them in a long time .. etc.. All in all, we quickly brush aside the opportunity to familiarize our immediate families with our extended family…we simply do not see the point, feel the need and have neither the time nor the inclination. What we seem to be forgetting in the process is that, as families get scattered and drift away geographically and emotionally, the ties and bonds that connected us are lost.
I had an interesting experience a few days ago that made me think a bit…
My husband and I were to meet a professional acquaintance of his and his wife for dinner. They were in town on a visit from the US. I was not really looking forward to it as I did not know either of the people and expected my husband to launch into shop-talk with no regard for the two ladies. In my experience, so far, it has been a rare occurrence when I have managed to have half-way decent conversation in such situations… so, like I said, I was not looking forward to it.
A few minutes into exchanging pleasantries, we faced a question that is common to us Indians “which part of the country are you from” and this lead to interesting discoveries like the fact that the wife’s family came from the same parts as my mother’s family… and a little further on surfaced the fact that his maternal grandmother shared my mother’s maiden name … and so the ice was broken. We laughed about how small the world is and six degrees of separation etc. As dinner progressed, our guest started to narrate some incident and mentioned a family name that was familiar to me. I turned to my husband and said, that’s the same family as my cousin xyz… and they turned to ask me, xyz? I said yes, she is my cousin and she lives in the US and they began to laugh. Turns out that the lady I was having dinner with, was the real sister of my uncle’s wife. I had heard of her by her pet name and so had she and since we didn’t know each other’s real names, we never thought to link. Needless to say the rest of the evening and the day after flew by in catching up with everything there was to.
However, this got me thinking… and I wondered, if 10 years down the line my daughter were in a similar situation, what would happen… firstly, she wouldn’t know the places that her grandparents families came from and I am pretty sure that except for my maiden name, she knows none of the other family names that are connected to us on either my side or her father’s side of the family. So there is a huge possibility that she may meet her uncles and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews and never know that they were related. Aren’t we, as parents to blame for this? I agree that it’s not a great loss…after all, you can go through a life-time without seeing or interacting with your cousins because they are far away… and what do you lose anyway?
But then something else happened that made me think some more…
A close friend from across the seas and me were having an online crib session, where we were complaining that our husbands are incapable of providing us empathy or any kind of emotional support. And as we talked, we also realized that we really did not have many people we could turn to in an emotionally vulnerable state…you know the kind… when you just need someone to listen and tell you… ya I know this stinks… but it will get better and you are doing a great job… let you cry and bitch for some time.. pat you.. give you a hug.. make you a cup of tea.. whatever… And even the few we do have, are busy in their own life’s and you wonder if you should disturb them for something that, you know in your mind, is trivial and so on…and she asked “how did we get to this point? Coz, growing up we had so many people we could turn to… we could actually choose who to turn to at any given point…so how and when did that change… of course we won’t have the same set of people, but shouldn’t we have managed to replace them with a new set???”
As typical middle class Indians, we grew in homes that were short of space, but the people were large hearted…it always sounded so clichéd when said in Hindi movies, but it IS true. We had people drop in randomly, the lack of phone connectivity during those years also meant that there was no way to warn anyone and yet, our mothers welcomed people they barely knew into our homes and they were made comfortable, thus laying the grounds for a loose yet fond bond. In its place, today we have larger homes, better equipped, more help from devices as well as maids and yet, if we have an unexpected guest, we immediately become uncomfortable…wondering how people can be so inconsiderate etc.
While we were growing up, summer vacations did not mean taking off to some fancy location and living in the lap of luxury…it meant visiting family in remote places, sleeping in a row on mats/mattresses laid out in the verandah/living rooms/terraces… it meant running riot with cousins, nieces and nephews, laughing until your stomach ached, fighting as though it were world war 3… it meant eating so much that you thought you stomach would burst and then rolling on the cool floor till you could breathe again. In those days, when guests came, there was no expectation that they would have a ‘room’ to themselves, or their own ‘space’. It was usual for a bed to be made where ever space permitted and they would be happy to sleep there. It was common for us to be asked to go sleep on the temporary bed while the older guest could sleep more comfortably in ours.
The point I am trying to make here is, we lived in each other’s spaces, lives were entwined and ‘privacy’ meant very different things then it does today. If you wanted ‘privacy’, you had to be a newly-wed craving for physical intimacy in a crowded space, or the elders in the family that needed to huddle together and find a solution to a serious family matter. Nothing else was really private. And from this stemmed our ability to discuss every silly problem with whoever was available without much thought of what needed to be filtered/censored. Today, our kids have difficulty in talking to us about their problems/issues and since they do not have the luxury of older cousins to turn to, they turn to their equally ill-equipped peers and end up making choices that can have serious consequences.
Therefore, I believe its time for us, the parents, to get over our ‘lack-of-time’ and manage to make time to acquaint our children with our extended families, either in person, or through stories that will go down the generations and make them feel connected to that 3rd or 4th cousin at the other end of the world who shares a family name or doesn’t. Time to make an effort to get to those family re-unions, weddings and other celebrations. So that, tomorrow, your child doesn’t turn around and say… I don’t know where my family comes from.