Whilst I’m not the only person that sat down to their laptop this morning in an attempt to ponder Christmas and it’s true meaning, I don’t mind shuffling onto bandwagons if they’re headed to my destination. I’m sitting in my sister’s conservatory in Milton Keynes listening to Frank Turner at a ridiculous volume that rattles the flimsy plastic roof of this frozen little structure that I’ve come to love in the years my sister has lived here. She’s gone out to see a friend and taken my niece with her, leaving me with my beloved nephew who is busy eating his body weight in cereal whilst he shouts along to Moana on the television.
My sister and I were watching a programme the other night on about Christmas food and the culmination of two hours of people talking about Christmas and what it meant to them, resulted in a banquet filled with people wearing sequined dresses, sipping revolting brandy cocktails and pretending to enjoy the canapes that looked like they’d already been eaten. And whilst they crooned and gathered around a piano to howl out some carols, I asked my sister if our lives were ever going to be like that.
And that was all the answer I needed.
We’re adults now. We have kids and houses and jobs and cars and bills to pay and appointments to keep. Whilst we were cramming presents into the boot of her car earlier in the week we looked at each other and laughed. My sister had this superpower when we were kids that she could pick up any Christmas present and feel around it a little and then guess, with almost 100% accuracy, what was inside. It used to impress me then and it impresses me now with one major difference – we don’t get an awful lot of Christmas presents anymore.
We are two of six kids and both of our parents are out there somewhere in the world. Our grandmother who was the head of our family and our guiding light in some horrifically dark times, has been gone for just over a year now, and her absence is felt everyday including Christmas. All told I have a mix of eight nieces and nephews, though I only see two of them. I have two parents, but I barely speak to only one of them. I have three brothers and two sisters, but my older sister Lizzie, is the only one I see or talk to and we talk to each other every day regardless of the sixty miles of space between both of our modest but loving homes.
In short – there is a lot of family out there that isn’t a part of my family anymore. Some of them drew lines in the sand, some of them ostracised themselves, some of them are just your garden variety batshit psychopaths that I wouldn’t trust in the company of a dead horse let alone that of my daughter, some of them have passed on and others just kind of faded away. Those big rooms filled with twinkling lights and chinking wine glasses and stories of the years that have passed that flicker through the television every year and confirm that my family is an abstract carving of what it used to be and could be once more, only serve to prove that family is not necessarily about quantity – but quality.
It sounds horrible to say that I don’t need them, my mother especially, but there I endeavour to give you the truth and the truth is – I don’t really miss her. I miss the idea of her. When I was a young teenager, my mum was my best friend and some of my best memories are with her. She is not a bad person and she never knowingly broke my heart, but broke it she did nevertheless. I have an issue of trust with her. Not just trust in who she is but who she perceives me to be and the adult I became is at odds with the teenager I was, though in her eyes, I never really grew up. My mother is an incredible woman that did the best with what she had and without her, I wouldn’t have been able to scramble up the first slippery rungs of the ladder of my life, but for the past three or four years, her support has dwindled in favour of others and though there may be an edge of bitterness in that statement, because there is an edge of bitterness in my heart, I miss my mum less knowing that she is safe and warm and happy as she than if she needed me as much as used to, which, for all of our combined sins, she no longer does.
Then there’s my little brother Phillip. Childhood best friends, Phill walked me down the aisle when I got married and held my hand so tight I thought it was going to fall off. He staggered through my dining room window drunk on his way home and nearly got beaten to death by my then husband with a cricket bat. We fell in love with video games together and when we were small enough to not think about the future, he was Robin Hood and I was Little John and we rode our bikes down the hill fast enough to flip them, pretending that there were horses and that we had to escape the Sheriffs men. We would laugh off the skinned knees and the bruises, convinced that we were outlaws, cowboys in the wild. Later in life our love of country music brought us closer together and the night I took him to see Toby Keith at the Hammersmith Apollo, was, to quote the man himself, a night I can’t remember with a friend, and brother, I’ll never forget. He shared his birthday money with me every year and I busted him out of a detention or two when we were older to repay the favour.
But then, somewhere between sex, drugs and drum and bass, Phill wandered out of my life and I haven’t really seen him since. I had my daughter young, and it put a gulf of difference between me and many people in my life. I wonder what we would have got up to as adults if I hadn’t had been a mother so young, and what brave and terrifying adventures we would have had if our ages had kept us together like they always did when we were little. I miss him. All the time. I hear a song or I see a movie or I get into a debate with someone and I think of him and how much he’d appreciate all those chords and jump scares and ideas. He’s a smart kid, that Phillip. But as our father always said, there’s a big difference between intelligence and common sense. His girlfriend is pregnant, news I heard from my sister, the Sunday newspaper of my family handing out everyone’s news in bitesize chunks so we all know what’s going on without ever having to speak to each other. I think of Phillip and how cute he was a kid, all wild hair and pale skin and dark eyes, his monkey like body climbing everything that could be climbed and falling out of trees more times than I’d care to remember.
And it makes me think of when me and my older sister Lizzie used to fight and I’d say to my mum,
Why does she have to be like that?
And my mum would always respond with the most infuriating,
Lizzie is never going to change so stop expecting her to.
And for the most part, she never did. But the rest of them did. Lizzie has always been a force of nature – opinionated, loud, inappropriate, a little unhinged – but she’s also the common thread that ties this tenuous family together. She’s the one that wants us to have a “normal” life where we have dinner once a month and all sit down together and talk. She wants our kids to grow up together. She wants our kids to have the relationship with their nan that we had with out nan. She wants to be able to give the world to all of us because, well, that’s Lizzie.
Nothing is ever good enough and though that was a bone of contention when we were kids, as an adult, it’s one of the many things I respect about her because every boyfriend I’ve ever had that she didn’t like, well, the bastards broke my heart. And every family gathering that I missed because I was working that upset her was a thorn lodged somewhere near my heart. Because for all intents and purposes, that beautiful broken woman is the closest thing I have to a family and when I don’t care what my mum thinks or if my brother wants me to be an aunt to his child, I care deeply and fiercely about what sister thinks and feels. And though it pains me to say it, I can feel fifteen-year-old Ronnie recoiling in terror in my gut – Lizzie has pretty much been right about everything so far.
And I could sit here and write a list of things that make me want to pull my hair out and scream when I think of my sister, but those things just don’t matter now as much as they used to because I don’t have to sit here and think nostalgically about why I love my sister the way I do about the rest of my family, because she refused to leave me even when I pushed her away. She didn’t walk around telling everyone about all the horrible things I’d done or how much of an arsehole I was – she picked up the phone and told me. She has fought a long and hard road to keep my head above the water (and out of my own arse) and when my world falls the pieces, as it has a time or two, her voice is the only voice I ever need to hear to make it feel okay.
Because she’s right.
I am an arsehole.
But she loves me anyway.
And that’s the best kind of love, right?
She doesn’t put expectations on me to have more money or to be more successful and she tells me that she’s proud of me, that I’m a good mum and that I’m a good sister and a good auntie and a good person. She doesn’t let me get away with radio silence and she prioritises my time in a way that I used to hate but now appreciate. And when she held my hand, sobbing uncontrollably, as the priest said one last prayer for my nan in a church on a frozen October morning a year ago, she did something that only my sister has ever had the ability to do.
Lizzie made me laugh.
And that’s the one real gift that my sister has always had to offer, through the months we didn’t speak or the months that we’ve been inseparable – her absolute ability to make you feel okay. She’s not one for mincing her words or stroking your ego, and she can be abrasive and crass, but she’s the one constant in my life that allows me to breathe when it feels like everyone else is squeezing me too tight.
So I’m taking this moment to tell her that she’s a good mum and a good sister and a good auntie and a good person and that without her, I don’t know where I’d be or who’d I’d be. And that all the water under the bridge is there and always will, and I’m sure that there will be times in the future when we disagree and don’t speak and argue and scream at each other, because that’s who we are but we’ll always come back to each other.
Because she’s my family.
And, like Stitch says, it’s small and broken but still good.
Yep. Still good.
So there will be no sequins or cocktails on Christmas morning and we’ve not bought each other much, but we are together and that’s enough for now and for always. We’re never going to fit into a box that’s easily labelled and put away and I doubt we will ever stand in a room again with all of our siblings or even both of our parents but that’s the beauty about not being kids anymore – we get to make our own lives and our own traditions as our parents did before us and our kids will do with our grandkids.
Because we’re grown ups now.
Well, most of the time.
So Merry Christmas Lizzie and thank you for all that you are and all that you’re not and for loving me for the arsehole that I am and for never giving up on me especially when I wanted to give up on myself. And for loving my daughter the way you do and for giving me your kids to love in return.
We’ll be alright, sis.
We always are.