It’s home time. I’m waiting at the school gates to collect my four-year-old son. Normally he pelts towards me, parka hood flapping wildly, to administer the world’s most perfunctory hug and issue urgent enquiries about snacks.
Today, though, my son’s progress across the playground is slow and dejected, as though someone has convinced him Father Christmas doesn’t exist. But he greets me with this: “Mummy, why are your mummy and daddy not with you?”
Oh, no. I wasn’t prepared for this. “Why, er, are you asking me this?” I reply, for want of any better response. “Because I think they might be…” My son winces at the enormity of his question. “Are they… Are your mummy and daddy dead?”
Totally blindsided by this line of questioning, I hunker down and start fussing with my son’s collar. Today, during a class about family trees – he falteringly explains – he realised he’d never met my parents. Then, his little foxy face riddled with concern, he hugs my neck. I ask him what that was for.
“It’s for your mummy and daddy. Because I think you must be very sad.”
He is a good, kind boy, I tell him because that’s the truth. The other truth is harder to explain to a four-year-old. So I’ll attempt to explain it to you.
My son is half-right: my parents aren’t “with” me, but only one of them is dead. My father passed away very unexpectedly when I was a child, and – sadly – relationships with my surviving relatives grew increasingly problematic over the intervening decades. Today, we are all estranged.
No one from my family attended my wedding five years ago – my father-in-law walked me down the aisle – and none of them have met my husband or children. It’s kind of a Thomas Markle scenario, except now my mother has vascular dementia, and is terminally ill, any sort of reunion seems unlikely.
I tend not to discuss my troubled family with people (although I have written about the situation with my mother), preferring just to say “my parents aren’t around anymore”. Only the densest of people probe any further. My favourite was the woman who asked about my ethnic background, and when I said, “well, my father was Italian”, hooted: “WAS Italian? What is he now? JAPANESE?” I’m afraid I took possibly too much pleasure in replying, “No, he was Italian, and now he’s dead” as the colour drained from her face.
“How do I tell my children about my background without seeding the worry that their own happy surroundings might suddenly dissolve into nothing?”
I can’t be so evasive when my children come to ask this question, I know – although I thought I’d have more time to formulate a response. The four-year-old didn’t even know the word “dead” until a few weeks ago. But how do I tackle it? How do I protect them from the impossible sadness of it all?
Because the reality is that I grew up in a close-knit family very like the one I’m raising my own kids in. My family was loud and loving, prone to silliness and laughter – just like my husband and kids. My childhood was spent romping around wholesomely, Enid Blyton-style, outdoors, and that’s how my kids happily spend their days, too.
But how do I tell them about my background without seeding the worry that their own happy surroundings might suddenly dissolve into nothing?
Perhaps one unlikely blessing in all this is that I’m not that sad anymore. I’ve been without my own family for so long that occasionally I forget, not that this wasn’t always my “normal”, but that it isn’t everyone else’s, too.
It took me a great deal of pain to get here, though. Christmas was particularly hard, because my childhood Christmas memories are so strong. I’d spend the entire festive season with arm-ache from helping my father erect his ambitious paper streamer decorations across the house – only to watch them come wafting down from the ceiling when the central heating melted the Blu-Tack.
And on Christmas Day itself, after church, my mother would disappear into the kitchen with a bottle of champagne. You’d hear a lot of clanking and chopping, and Christmas carols sung in my mother’s semi-operatic vibrato. Four hours later, she’d emerge in a cloud of steam – tipsy and cross-eyed – but with the turkey and trimmings all ready for the table.
The triple gut-punch of remembering these moments, then remembering they were gone, then hearing someone else blithely discussing family Christmas because they still have one, has lessened over time. Over the years I’ve been subsumed into other people’s Christmases by friends and boyfriends (my best friend once took me home for Christmas in a wonderful gesture – but her family reminded me so much of my own I spent the entire day choking back tears).
For the past five years my family has consisted of my husband, children, in-laws and a few select friends. Christmas is easier now, because it’s about the kids – not the giant gaping hole in my past – and we are building our own traditions. And in the run-up to this year’s festivities, I’ve been trying to lightly float the ones I want to carry forward from my own family – the streamers, the family trips to carol services, the ritual watching of The Box of Delights.
I’m doing this for three reasons. Firstly, because these traditions have always made me happy. Secondly, and more selfishly, while I love my in-laws, we have to change up how we do Christmas because their Protestant rules of “no booze, no TV, no bread sauce” simply cannot stand for another year.
And thirdly, of course, because it gently introduces the idea to my children that their mother’s parents aren’t gaps in her story, but people with personalities and preferences, just like them.
So, instead of clamming up, I tell my son a little about my parents on the way home from school. I tell him I loved them, what they looked like, and enjoyed, and didn’t enjoy, and that it’s sad that it didn’t all work out. I don’t try to gee him up when he looks up at me with his little forehead wrinkled with sadness. I don’t complain when it takes us twice as long to walk home, because he’s clutching me so awkwardly it hampers our progress. As I talk, he sorrowfully strokes what he thinks is my lower back, but is actually my upper bottom.
There should be no moratorium on sadness when it comes to the loss of my parents. And the loss is sad. Although I’m now at a point of acceptance, it’s taken years of pain, denial, anger, grief and sorrow to get here. Sadness is a human emotion, and I should allow my kids to experience it even when it’s secondhand, I think – and just be there for them as they go through it.