BY JOE NUTT
Like many people who read an essay by Honor Jones published someweeks ago in The Atlantic magazine, entitled How I Demolished my Life, I reacted badly. For anyone who missed it, the essay began with the author detailing her dissatisfaction with her current kitchen, before rapidly moving onto a description of the unending mess created by her three children, then devoted most of its 1,900 words to justifying her decision to divorce. The piece ended with this optimistic claim, “I think I’m making something new.”
Rarely have I persisted with prose so precisely calculated to press all my buttons simultaneously. My tweet at the time:
I think captured that reaction perfectly.
But reflection never does anyone any harm and sometime later I realised there was perhaps, a better, less dismissive way to respond. I considered taking the essay on in the discursive way thoughtful writers are supposed to, but my family wouldn’t let me. Because whenever I write, whatever I write about; they inform my thought and infuse my prose like good angels perched invisibly on my shoulder.
So this is for anyone who, like the author of How I Demolished my Life, is tempted to think that ridding yourself of a family you chose to create, in partnership with someone else, will make you feel better, about yourself.
I didn’t learn to ski until I was in my thirties, so I took my two daughters to the Italian resort of Courmeyer one Christmas, when they were still quite young, so that they didn’t have to wait as long to feel that extraordinary, physical exhilaration skiing delivers. Over the course of a week, we spent each day in a world of a pure white. Snow frequently stinging my cold face, the sound of a busy ski resort all around me; I would end each run by standing for a while and just watching alongside their ski school, as they quickly moved from cautious to downright cavalier. The youngest still is and I wouldn’t dare follow her down a mountain these days. I took short video clips capturing their progress for them to enjoy after each day, and not once did I tire of the sound of Katy Perry singing Baby You’re a Firework, which seemed to be the only track the ski school had.
It’s one of dozens of evocative tunes my daughters put on a flash drive for me a few Christmas’s ago, for when I was driving the lengthy trip from Southern England to St Andrews, where the youngest eventually went to university. I’ve added to it and added to it since then. The last time I drove back after dropping her off, I started it on shuffle the moment I left and there were still 27 tracks yet to play by the time I reached home, almost every one of them redolent of something from our family life together. It’s about a 10-hour drive.
Courmeyer is a pretty, obviously Alpine village and it was deep in snow that Christmas when we invented a game that involved scrutinising its gloriously inviting, brilliantly lit shop windows. One of us would choose one thing in the window that we would like, above everything else, and the others had to guess what it was. It was such a simple, confirmational delight to get it right, as we often did. We had hot drinks and cakes every day after skiing and by the time we returned home I was confident they had learned something they would love doing for life. I was right. At midnight mass they both fell asleep, exhausted, one either side, their heads leaning on my shoulders.
Another Christmas we spent in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Odd choice you might think, but there were two good reasons. One was I wanted somewhere we could pretty much guarantee would be snowy, and the other had to do with my youngest daughter’s sport. At the time she spent around 20 hours every week training as an artistic gymnast. Every week day except Mondays, I would pick her up from school and drive her straight to her gym for 4pm and then collect her again at 8pm. Then again on Sundays from 10am to 2pm. For around eight years her training schedule dominated our family routine. Imagine how many hours of conversation that all adds up to. I don’t need to because I lived them.
Much of the time we talked about school, friends and gymnastics, since so much of her life was spent in that gym where all her closest friends were; girls she still sees now in her twenties. The fraught family car journey is something of a contemporary cliché, which is such a pity since a car journey is the perfect excuse to talk. I learned, as they were both growing up, to do a lot of listening.
Looking for Christmas presents that same year, I managed to find a gym mum online who as a side line, designed and made spectacularly unique leotards for gymnasts. Inconveniently, she lived in Vilnius. The gymnast daughter has always been a keen artist too so I encouraged her to design her own leotard, as a game. Without her knowledge, I then sent her pencil drawing to Vilnius and this lovely stranger agreed that not only would she make it, but on Christmas Eve, she would deliver it in person.
So on Christmas Eve, sitting in the foyer of a small hotel in the fairy tale Old Town centre of Vilnius, with snow falling outside in huge, soft lumps; try to imagine the expression on my daughter’s face when a strange, smartly dressed woman approached her smiling, carrying a huge gift box, wrapped extravagantly like something out of Eloise at Christmas, topped by a massive, silver bow. If you haven’t seen Eloise I can recommend it as a niche Christmas family movie. I know this because we’ve watched it together every Christmas for years, and each viewing is a richer, happier occasion, built on all those previous Christmases. This year was the first time since they were both small, that we haven’t been able to watch it together because the eldest was abroad. They both complained.
While Christmas commands a special place in any family history, let’s turn to some of the un-Christmas days, because as Humpty Dumpty knew, there are far more of them.
Many of them did involve significant events; taking them to sit school entrance exams, watching them compete, at gymnastics or volleyball, sometimes after a lengthy drive, which again provided the perfect opportunity just to talk. After watching live volleyball at the London Olympics, the eldest decided it was a sport she wanted to try out, so a whole world of new friends, people and places opened up, once I had found a local club and she was urged within a few weeks to join a much more competitive one. There were the trips to hospital when she broke her finger, just as she was finding a place in the first team and they were preparing for the national championships. I was able to show her how to manage that kind of trip on her own, and for her later appointments, she went without me. The list of subsequent significant events in her life, both joyful and harrowing I’ve shared with her, is long and rich.
Most un-Christmas days were more mundane. The Saturday evenings when we would go to the local video store and they would spend way too long trying to choose something we could all go home together and watch. I quickly gave up ever making a suggestion. They always knew way better than me what we would all enjoy. There were the numerous school events, the musicals they both took part in, the annual gym and dance evenings when on one occasion an elderly lady sitting next to me and who turned out to be an ex sports teacher, pointed to my youngest daughter and said, “That little girl has more talent than the rest put together.” I’ll leave you to decide how I felt when I replied, “That little girl is my youngest daughter.”
At this point, if this risks sounding self-indulgent, then I’m failing because what I hope these anecdotes capture, is merely what it means to be in a family. These are my experiences, but every single, loving parent will have an equally joyful, lengthy list.
Part of our routine was a morning walk through the local park to their school with our Border Terrier, Toast, who shared every terrier’s ambitions when it came to squirrels and on numerous occasions, almost realised them. The amusement she provided at her furry foes’ expense lit up those walks. There was one particular tree in the park we treated as a kind of seasonal weather vane. It changed its appearance before our eyes as the weeks advanced, ticking like an infinitesimally slow, watched clock.
One evening we all attended an awards evening for school children, sponsored by the Jack Petchey Foundation charity, and although the eldest was a recipient, all three of us were entranced by a performance put on by a small, shy line of around a dozen children from a special school. They stood on the stage, visibly nervous and fidgety, each clutching two handbells. At a signal from their teacher they launched into a performance of Snow Patrol’s hit, Run. My throat constricts even today, every time I think of it. It was instantly enrapturing, a wholly beautiful spectacle for anyone to witness. I can feel my eyes moistening as I write.
When I drive and listen to the flash drive, the same thing happens. Just a few bars of something can trigger the most intense memory; and the emotion that characterised the event comes flooding back. The pleasure we all got from a little Go pro camera, just taking the dog for walks or swimming. The time Toast slid sideways down a muddy slope that was so steep, even her four little paws couldn’t get any traction and she looked destined for disaster until I somehow caught up with her; one hand on her collar, the other grasping a flimsy sapling, while my daughters’ laughter rippled through the pine trees at my chaotic rescue mission. Family memories are an endless source of joy and delight to me, even while they go on being created, because a family is for life, not just for Christmas.
It was always my intent that such precious, lived experiences were to be shared with their mother but, like Ms Jones she decided one day her life would be better without us. Our two young girls chose to live with me and only seeing them for a few hours each Saturday, she was inevitably deprived of a family life. Children know when they are loved and if your idea of a family is something you can opt in or out of at will, then the signal you give them is unequivocal; you matter more. Best not to create one.
The most important job any of us will ever do, is parenting. It’s worth dwelling on that thought because the contemporary world assaults us all with rival messages; most of them a version of the advertising slogan, Because you’re worth it, so appositely favoured by a global cosmetics brand. But children aren’t cosmetic. They aren’t fashion items you can return because they don’t fit and you certainly can’t pretend some other human being made them with you. From the moment you hold them in your arms your life is a shared endeavour; you become something much greater than yourself.
It does not take a village to bring up a child; it takes a family, however diminished by selfishness, tragedy or just folly that family may be, because a family is a genetic gift; a shared identity built of blood, passions, tears and joy. It is never just any old unit of humans who happen to find themselves living under the same roof.
Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His latest book, Teaching English for the Real World was published by John Catt in May 2020.