AIDA AUSTIN: “And then they were gone”

MY MEMORIES of the old, soft days of parenting seem to have merged into one — a generic day, punctuated by kisses, which went like this: “Drink your milk — last drop, one shoe on — now the other one, hold my hand, five-a-day, sharing is caring — yes — even with scones, bath-time, pyjamas, time for bed, two stories, there’s no such thing as monsters, night, night,” sofa, glass of wine, box-set.

Days from the sharper end of parenting also seem to have merged into one — another generic day, which went like this: “Up. It’s late. What do you mean you’re not going to school? Your teacher is a what? A tool? What would you do if I threw paper pellets at you while you were trying to teach French? Safe sex, no to drugs — please roll your eyes back into the forward position, yes I know you’ve heard it all before. Malboro Lights under your bed — not yours? Whose then? Really? You must think I’m a mug,” sofa, glass of wine, box-set.

Then it seems there was a short flurry of provisional driving licences, exams, CAO forms, student houses, passports, rucksacks and goodbyes.

And then they were gone.

Like my mother says, “it all just passed in a blur, love.”

But this hamster-wheel blur of family-life had a solid, house-shaped outline drawn around it. It was contained: one house, everybody in it. Instead of feeling like the natural series of fleeting changes that it actually was, family-life seemed fixed in time, never-ending.

With my children now sprinkled across continents, the shape of family-life has changed dramatically and its outline draws and re-draws itself constantly, but I notice from time to time that the intangibles haven’t altered at all.

Like worry, for example, which springs into life the second we scream our first baby into existence, always and for ever pivoting around the same three little questions: “Are they happy? Are they healthy? Are they safe?” These three questions are the stuff of crow’s feet, irritable bowels and sleepless nights — and have no regard for geography or time zones.

But neither does love. I was reminded of this last week when my youngest daughter was greatly saddened by circumstances that — let’s just say — were far more serious than a broken finger-nail.

Her siblings, a scattered diaspora, each tried in their own way to cheer her up. On Facebook, her older sister sent her a link to the song, ‘Sunscreen’, by Baz Lurhman. The lyrics, set to a mellow soundtrack, are taken from an article called “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young,” but in this instance, the small effort my eldest daughter expended in thinking about her younger sister wasn’t wasted.

Nor was the advice; containing such disparate pieces of wisdom as, “Floss. Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85” and “be nice to your siblings, they’re the best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future”. My youngest daughter loved it.

And then her brothers phoned and e-mailed her in their laconic style. “What’s the gossip then?” I asked my daughter afterwards. “Just stuff,” she told me smiling. Clearly the right stuff: photos, messages from their girlfriends, stupid video clips and slagging banter that restored my daughter for a while. But her smile was not so much about the stuff that her siblings sent (though “Sunscreen,” is definitely worth a read) as the fact that they sent it.

At the time when family-life meant “one house, everybody in it,” I was too busy mediating my children’s daily bickering ruptures and reconciliations to wonder what might happen to the family bonds.

But this week, at the sharpest end of parenting — in that uncomfortable place where love and worry bind themselves together in the tightest of knots — my kids bridged the gaps in geography and reunited in the way that matters most.

Any parent who’s at the very least found Malboro Lights under a bed will know that family-life is never perfect — but this week, the family bonds that were created way, way, way back in the soft days — held tough. The intangibles are the same. And that, to me, is as good as it gets.


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