Happy Families by Linda Dyson
I think I was six years old when I first realised that our family was peculiar.
I saw that my classmates had birthday parties attended solely by other children. In our house, however, the relatives descended in force and child-friendly activities gave way to endless hours of adult talk and putting the world to right.
Uncle Harry was always the first to arrive and the last to leave, his pipe spewing out its filthy odours caused by the “Fisherman’s Baccy” he insisted on stuffing into it, for the full duration of his visit.
Harry was my Grandfather’s youngest brother, by twenty years or more. They were the ‘book-ends’ of a huge Italo-Irish Catholic brood. His wife, Auntie Hattie, was an avid knitter and I always dreaded opening presents from her, because the latest offering, however hideous, was de rigeur apparel for the rest of her visit, even on the occasion of my birthday in mid- July. Their daughter Millie had the most annoying high-pitched giggle and anything and everything would set her off.
Uncle Reg, Father’s elder brother, and his wife, Betty, never stopped talking, whether anyone was listening or not and Dad’s sister Mary always wore the sickliest perfume I have ever encountered. She would insist on giving us all the sloppiest of kisses on arrival and departure, when the waves of scent would give me a choking fit. Her husband, Derek, was the only one who opted out of the noisy debates by falling asleep but the subsequent snoring emitted from his corner only added to the cacophony.
I would try to escape as soon as possible, but dinner and tea could not be avoided, nor the pinching of cheeks, the pulling of ears or the nosey questions about my progress at school.
My Grandfather’s funeral, when I was about eleven, was typical. Black horses, with plumes on their heads, pulled the open glass carriage, the coffin laden down with floral tributes expressing sentiments like ‘Best Dad ever’, or ‘The King of Connemara’. Loud, histrionic sobs permeated the air during the service but afterwards, at the wake, there was an atmosphere bordering on jolly. Huge amounts of liquor were consumed and even the priest was a little merry. The parting comment was, “Well, we gave him a good send-off!” My understanding of adults’ hypocrisy took several steps forward that day.
During my teenage years, my Mother managed a compromise- I still had to endure family gatherings, which I made quite sure none of my cool mates ever experienced, but she ensured I had “the boy’s birthday’ to look forward to as well. These were inevitably outings of the extreme sports variety so that there would be no complaints from the tribe about not being invited.
This was not acceptable when it came to my 18th and 21st birthdays, however, but I made sure that the relations had to endure MY kind of music, turned up so loud that there was no chance of them being heard, whatever they said. Nevertheless, Uncle Harry’s ‘ Dad-dancing’ and Aunt Mary’s perfume were particularly embarrassing and I spent a lot of my time carefully steering any cool dudes I was out to impress, well away from them.
Three months after my21st, however, was my graduation. I thought that as only two guests per graduate were allowed at the ceremony, I would be safe here. My new girlfriend and I arranged a celebratory meal at a restaurant for ourselves and our parents afterwards. Fiona’s Dad was a top scientist and I was keen to impress him.
The meal went well and we were just taking photographs in the park when a familiar, ”Yoo-hoo!” filled the air. Uncle Reg’s eight-seater pulled up beside us and out spilled the relatives, complete with picnic, champagne and party poppers. Not only did WE have to endure their company, but so did all the other new graduates celebrating in the park that day. Needless to say, I didn’t impress Fiona’s Dad and our relationship didn’t last much longer.
So, when I did find Patti, my true soulmate, I was determined to protect her from family gatherings and didn’t allow her to meet any of them until we were well and truly engaged. The relatives complained loudly that they hadn’t met her, so I chose the venue-the zoo. Afterwards we laughed and laughed as we compared them to the animals. Uncle Henry, we decided, was like a gloomy gorilla while Patti compared Reggie and Betty to a pair of noisy parakeets and Millie to a laughing hyena. Poor old Uncle Derek was a sloth, of course, though she did decide that skunk was too unkind a comparison for Mary so she chose peacock instead.
I had a great plan for our wedding. We would get married on a Greek island, far from home, and only invite our parents, siblings and two friends each. All seemed to be going well and there were no complaints from the relations, which should have made me suspicious. As we boarded the second small ferry on the rather complicated route to our dream destination, suddenly two big taxis pulled up at the quayside. To my horror, out spilled the whole bang shoot crying ,”Surprise! Surprise!” overwhelming us with hugs, kisses and noisy congratulations.
“I didn’t tell them…” my Mother stuttered in horror.
“We worked it out-played detectives!” Reg and Betty shouted cheerily together.” We wanted to give you a lovely surprise!”
Somehow we didn’t let their presence spoil our special day, but I realized that by going to a small island we had included everyone in our honeymoon too. The result was that Patti and I returned home five days early, leaving them all to annoy each other while we had peace and quiet in our new home.
I had already decided that the only way to stop them ruining our lives was to take jobs teaching overseas. An English language school was conveniently opening up in Dubai and we both managed to find work there.
But sometimes, as we sat by ourselves on our balcony overlooking the desert, regretting that yet another set of newfound expat friends were moving on, I allowed myself just the occasional pang of regret. Maybe, just a little, I missed those predictable, noisy old family gatherings!