Saturday, June 13, 2009

The lost cousin

There I was in the backyard of a sterile McMansion, on a clear-skied winter’s day, having conversations with cousins I had known for decades – but one of them remained elusive.

I belong to an extended Catholic family on my mother’s side. On this side alone I have 21 cousins (one of them now deceased) and there are 26 of us altogether. The generations have remained close and still continue to socialise.

Big family Christmases presided over by my grandparents have continued, with the cousins who played together as children continuing to see each other at what is an annual gathering. As they’ve grown up and married they have brought along their own children, a bevy of rowdy third cousins happily mingling.

Family traditions stretch back for decades, like the children chasing Father (sometimes 'Mary') Christmas after (s)he'd handed out the presents and made a quick exit. The sole aim of this chase was to reveal Santa's true identity and remove by force the red hat and the snowy beard.

A decent number of all three (and soon to be four) generations – the third generation is just now coming of age – still come to family gatherings, like the engagement parties and sixtieth and seventieth birthday parties that are now going on. Of course not everyone is plugged in, and some who might otherwise be fixtures currently live or are travelling overseas. I’m somewhere in the middle, choosing the gatherings I attend with care.

Annette is one of my first cousins, the oldest daughter of one of my mother’s sisters. The sisters are only two years apart, but with hugely different personalities. Annette and I are almost exactly the same age, but as a child the peripatetic existence of her family meant our friendship took a while to cement.

In early childhood there was fierce rivalry between me and my older sister Georgia for the affections of Annette. One night she came to our place for a sleepover and the three of us slept on the floor in the sunroom.

Although at that point Georgia got on much better with Annette than I did, I insisted on sleeping in the middle. Annette and Georgia clasped hands over my prone body, symbolically affirming their closeness in the face of my stubbornness.

Soon afterwards I gave up on Annette and turned to her sister Miranda for friendship. An easygoing tomboy, Miranda was two years younger than Annette.

But gradually things changed. For about three years the family lived in Melbourne, renting a humble house in the same suburb we lived in. Annette and Miranda even went to the same local Catholic school my sisters and I attended. The two of us became close and I was often at their place after school. Sometimes I stayed the night and we held midnight feasts or pleasantly scary seances, and I was allowed to watch the Sunday night 8.30 movie, a privilege denied to me at home.

Then the family were on the move again, back to the country town they’d lived in when I was a child. It was one of the many small losses of childhood but it was not a complete loss – I went and stayed with them a few times in the country. By then, sandwiched comfortably between Annette and Miranda in the friendship stakes, I experienced some of my happiest times.

In a few years they were back once more, this time living in the hills outside Melbourne where Annette’s parents had bought a milkbar. I continued to stay with them sometimes, and when I was 14, during one school hols, Annette and I felt like honorary grownups when we stayed with a much younger aunty and her small family in her newly built 'display' home in the sprouting wilds of the outer south-eastern suburbs. Precious times all of them: for me Annette had become a sister without the jealousy, anger and sibling rivalry that stopped me from enjoying the company of my actual siblings.

But as young adulthood loomed we began to grow apart – only it was Annette doing the growing, not me. I remember the precise time that I felt the old Annette had completely disappeared. With her parents she’d dropped in to our place for a flying visit one weekend, and she and I were walking back from the corner shop.

We were 16. I was still a child in many ways, scared of boys and already suffering the crippling social anxiety that would continue to dog me. By that stage she was getting to know the wild teenagers of the Dandenongs.

As we walked along Darling Road she was looking around and swinging her arms and talking too loudly and animatedly about people I had never met and had no interest in. I looked at her and wanted the old, quieter Annette back, the one who retreated into herself when she was in the wars. But I feared she was gone for good. The new one was clearly a complete fake.

Even then, with no understanding of psychology, I dimly perceived that Annette had taken on a new personality to cover up her childish insecurities rather than having outgrown them. I did not change this interpretation of the new Annette for the next three decades.

I saw Annette again, for the first time in about four years, at a recent family event. I had no expectations. I’d long ago stopped bothering to talk to her at such gatherings because she always ran away.

In earlier years, when she was still with her first husband, after a minute or two of distracted chat she would start to look around in consternation and say ‘Where’s Martin?’ and then abruptly excuse herself to go and look for him. Even I, slow on the uptake, eventually gave up. She had no interest in my life or what I was up to, and I might as well gravitate towards one of the cousins who did.

Our lives couldn’t have turned out more differently. After a false start with Martin, and with her true love Arthur, she eventually had five children. She lives a prosperous life on a large property in a house they had had built near the Hawkesbury River.

So there she was the other day, down from NSW to attend a huge family do in a too-large house I’d never stepped inside before. Her hair was dyed a stark black and looked permed, and she wore a red jacket with black trimmings. Her strong features were still striking, but like me she was undeniably middle aged: we had both recently turned 46. After all these years, I still remembered that her birthday was three weeks and three days before mine, making her a Taurus.

I hadn’t planned to talk to her, but there she was in the courtyard, on the fringes of another group, looking in my direction, and it would be churlish to ignore her. I leaned towards her. ‘We’re Facebook friends now’, I said. Another cousin was standing nearby and the three of us formed a group as we began to joke about the shortcomings of Facebook.

‘Are you on Twitter?’ I asked Annette. ‘I think it’s a complete waste of time’.

To my surprise, she didn’t know what Twitter was, so I started to explain it as best I could. We were all laughing and I was beginning to feel the old click.

An older lady came up to the group and started talking with the other cousin. Although she was addressing us all, it was one of those conversational moments when you sense a branching off is about to take place: she and the other cousin were reminiscing about a prestigious school they had both attended. It was turning into an alumni-type chat.

I didn’t feel at that point like leaving the conversation, but I could sense Annette’s impatience. For the first time I noticed that she still had the old restlessness. Her body wouldn’t stay still, and her right arm was – well – twanging. She looked as if she could begin to dance at any moment. Her head began to crane, searching around for something better. Any minute I would lose her, and this time it might be for good.

‘I’m going to get a drink’, she said and she was off.

I wonder now why I hadn’t taken charge and asked her about her children – how old the youngest was, for example, or what her oldest was doing. But perhaps I’d already decided that she wouldn’t be interested in talking to me alone. Perhaps without realising it I was playing it safe.

Later I saw her from a distance, talking in another group, and again I noticed that fluttering refusal to keep still. For the first time I looked back at our walk along Darling Road all those years ago, when I’d been so dismayed at the change in her, and I read it a bit differently.

Sure, Annette may well have been covering up her vulnerable child self, and perhaps she still was. But perhaps she was also trying to allow a new, social self to emerge, a self that was interested in the real world of human beings rather than the fantasy world of childhood that still held me captive. Perhaps the Annette that had confronted me that day was the real Annette after all.

Of course the sudden change I’d perceived all those years ago may have partly been due to Annette’s complex family circumstances, as well as the demands of puberty. But although she went on to stumble around a bit as a young adult – as most of us do – her social self eventually enabled her to find her place in the world. It certainly hasn’t stopped her being happy and successful. Perhaps all along she’s had more psychological sophistication than I’ve given her credit for.

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