Sunday, November 19, 2006

the other side

We size each other up with nervous smiles on our faces - which is what tends to happen on first meetings. The questions I want to ask are inappropriate; my, those muscles are big - how often do you work out? and of course tell me everything about this family that no one ever talks about. The thing about these kinds of gatherings for me is that this side of my family is a mystery - every time I meet someone they are completely new, on a fleeting visit and usually unable to speak English so communication apart from hand gestures are out. One side gives me nightmares. The other side is an unknown quantity. This 'other side' are the side I never met, hear about, or even know the names of. Generations past of grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts and cousins I wouldn't know how to address if I ever met them - though so many have passed on. People I wouldn't know how to contact, even, baring names I can't pronounce and speaking a language I only ever heard through screaming conversations in through the phone line, circa 1987. Long distance. Telecom.

But here is one of them - who has not seen my mother in over 50 years and I am fascinated by the strong familial traits he and my mother share, the eyes are the same, the mouth is the same the expressions are ..uncannily the same. The traits have been diluted through my brother and I though - hardly in existence anymore - like the family itself. They speak at each other in broken English interspersed with the mother tongue. Leaving me clutching to the tail end of a conversation suddenly turned confusing.

I listen to the nostalgic recollections about the old monastery that was ruined by the communists and the brothers who lived there and made handmade cheese by a secret recipe; sold to the French after the war. Funny stories about my uncle building unique wooden sleds and sending my mother hurling down a snowy hill at a high speed, causing her to break her nose from the crash at the bottom. Family wars over soccer teams, with team colours painted on the trunks of trees outside the homes of non-supporters just to test their ire, and of course the ever explosive diatribes about political life in post war Europe. Everything is still emotional and things get personal very quickly for the inhabitants when a country is ruined and torn apart.

I try to build a memory bank of these things so that one day I have a reference point as to who I am.

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