Families are nests where stories grow. What each tale will become is often unclear. But with the transformations of time the nest remains: familiar, fragile, strong.
I grew up in a family of stories. Everything and everyone had a story, from the chipped and glued figurine on the mantelpiece to every member of my family. All had a story.
In our immediate family of five (six when granddad was with us), Mum was the storyteller. The eldest girl of seven siblings, she, like her elder brother, told stories of the greatest length with the most detail and funny voices. They took interjections, allowed any and all anecdotes each auntie or uncle offered up with great mirth. Dad always sat there and laughed.
As a kid sitting at a table over-loaded with food and drinks I was taught not to return to the same plate twice, to be seen and not heard. There was always too much food to choose from and you couldn’t just pick at your favourites or you would miss out on the desserts: fruit salad, lamingtons, always a pav, with its sweet hard shell and soft chewy centre.
I don’t know how many times I heard about the day my uncle fell into the duck pond in the Gardens and how Mum, as the eldest, got the blame. Or the summer Granddad biked into the Square to get Ice-cream Charlie’s for everyone; balancing the nine ice-creams in a box on the handle-bars for the ride home.
When I was young it was the jokes and clowning of the younger uncles (two jokers and a clown) that opened my ears: they were never repeated, always new. Even today, I remember the best of those jokes. The fart that went Honda. The polar bear who had just eaten an ice-cream.
Family get-togethers were frequent in my childhood. They seemed an echo of the shared meals my mother grew up with where, every Sunday, everyone came to my grandparents’ house (married and moved on, or not). There were always room for friends, a meal provided for anyone who needed it. Such is the rhythm and noise of extended families.
The harmonic I experienced began after my grandmother died and everyone moved away seeking better jobs and lives. When someone came back to visit the old hometown of Christchurch we would flock in for meals shared across two tables as no one table was big enough for adults and children. As always, the old stories came out with interjections and anecdotes, the familiar funny voices.
Outside the shared meal we kids were told to get lost, which we did: packs of cousins, in country or town, heading somewhere to do something. Creek, domain, paddock, park: making huts, sitting together singing to a 45, imploring Billy not to be a hero, telling Laura that Tommy loved her.
The thing about family is you never want the stories to end. You may get bored of oft-repeated tales but as you get older they take on a glow you want to add to.
Today, I live alone. It’s not what I intended. I expected to be near whanau with a partner and children, a living reflection of how I grew up. But the demands of an economy that puts little value on being near the support of family has turned me, like many, into an internal migrant far from my shared stories.
I’m not entirely alone. I have a daughter who is five. I share her care with her mother every other week (far from family, she also lives alone). I love being a parent but struggle being so far from my nest. There are no siblings to squabble with; no cousins leading my daughter into mischief, no stories patiently ignored while waiting for the funny bits.
I do my best to replicate what I miss. There are many others like me in the Bay, far from family. We regularly get our kids together so they may roam free and create mischief while the adults talk.
I’m inching towards a whanau of sorts with aunties and uncles keeping an eye on things, gently teasing and cracking jokes.
Mum has been gone nearly two years. I have her box of photos of people I do not know, and the memory of her voice. There are many other bits and pieces around the place and I tell my daughter the story of each one. The chipped Hummel figurine of a boy eating a pudding sits by the dining table where I eat meals with my daughter. It was broken the night we kids were throwing a ball with Mum. It was a spontaneous moment, we weren’t to throw balls inside, and Mum cried when she saw what she had done. I glued it back together but it’s a rough fix.
I haven’t told my daughter this particular story but I will. We talk a lot, about everything. She’s a very chatty girl. She knows where nearly every object in this house came from, who gave her each toy and all of her clothes. In time, this closeness will change and we will have to part. Until then we tell jokes, and interject, weaving stories built for flight.