Stubbies and champagne flutes clinked as we sat down, elbow to elbow, for lunch with my fiancee’s extended family. Christmas. Platefuls of barbecued prawns and chopped salads made their way back and forth down the table, accompanied by reminiscent tales of Warrnambool teenage antics and standing family jokes. I ate, and listened, as family banter leapt from person to person, with heated outrage and disbelief, and guffawing nods of agreement. Memories of grown children as babies, camping trips and birthdays gone. Memories that all began with a “Remember when…” that I didn’t remember.
I’d only been in Australia three months at the time. The warm December sun was still novel. I remember my pile of presents under the tree all wrapped up in brown paper and postmarks, nestling between silver and white coloured boxes. And my Christmas phone call from home with familiar voices. Voices that would be eating turkey and cranberry sauce, with the radiators up full blast. Voices I didn’t yet miss.
I’ve been here almost seven years now. Seven Christmases. Six birthdays. Six Mothers’ and Fathers’ days. I now cook the Christmas lunch with my Mother-in-law (to be). We sip champagne and gossip, and I tease her with the possibility of grandchildren. And I’m almost a part of the “remember when” stories. I don’t sound so much like the voices from home anymore – they tell me so every time I call. And it makes me wonder whether my children, when I have them, will sound like me. And whether they’ll know the place I call home.
I missed my brother’s 21st a few years back. Two grandfathers and a family pet have since died. My best friend had a baby girl who is two this year and a few months ago, on Easter Sunday, my Dad celebrated his 60th birthday. He said he felt 60, too, when I rang home, their morning, after the party. He was still in bed. And still slightly drunk according to Mum. Typical.
“It was a great night, I think” he said, still half asleep. “We ended up having a bit of a singsong on the old joanna.” I could see them all now, their wine haggard voices belting out the golden oldies like exultant rugby match supporters. Dad singing louder and flatter than the crowd. I ‘remembered when’ Dad, Mum, my brother and I got drunk and went to midnight mass one year. I had to sit down during the hymns to hide my laughing.
My fiancee and I were supposed to be back in Warrnambool for Easter Sunday. But we weren’t. There’s a pervasive and guilty feeling that creeps in when you’re sat around some-one else’s family table, laughing and drinking. A feeling that you are somehow replacing and forgetting the people you love most. The people who know you best. And with every passing year you fear you might forget them a little more, and know them a little less, as you grow and learn and live your everyday without them.
Yesterday Dad emailed me the photos that Uncle Roger took at his party. His paunch looks bigger beneath the old tatty blue and white apron he’s wearing. Too much butter and whiskey doesn’t change! There’s a nice one of him and Mum with the painting she did for him of the dogs. And one of him carving a half side of beef, surrounded by older, familiar, smiling faces. My mouth watered for home cooked roast beef and Yorkshire puds, gravy, and sticky-charred parsnips.
Looking out at the swaying palm tree outside my sitting room window, and back down at the faces on my laptop screen, I feel every one of those 16,891 kilometres.
I remember watching a British tv show ‘Jim’ll fix it’ when I was little. The one where people would write in and ask him to ‘fix’ something for them. Kids would ask for new bikes or a trip to Butlins, Mums for kitchen make-overs. The Dads would want to race a V8 for the day or wing walk. But occasionally an older person would write in and ask to be reunited with a brother or sister in Australia. “I haven’t seen so and so in 35 years,” they’d say. And I used to wonder how this happened. How they left it so long. How families could just drift apart like that. And I would say to myself, that would never be me. And it won’t.