(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 13, 2016)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ It was over lunch in Dundas with my sister, somewhere between the spring rolls and the coconut shrimp, when the question came without any hint to suggest this would be one of those ‘aha’ moments that can be unpacked and looked at and handled for a lifetime.
“So of all the places you’ve been,” she asked, “what’s your favourite?”
I might have said Paris or Berlin or Seoul, or maybe Amsterdam or London or Istanbul, or maybe somewhere in the Mid-East or Africa where I’ve not just passed through as an observer, but where I’ve lived for well over a decade with my wife and children.
(In our African living-room, hundreds of family photos, many from these places, rotate in frames as regularly as the morning sunrise, even as as my sister and I have old photos packed somewhere of her and me and our father and cats – it was always the two cats – shot in some cheesy studio every Christmas, me in those God-awful ‘70s turtlenecks.)
But before I knew it, the word was out of my mouth and lingering in the restaurant air. “Home,” I said. “It’s home.”
Home in this case means Hamilton, where my children and their mother and I reside part-time. But there’s more. There’s thick irony. And this wouldn’t be lost on my sister because she, like any sister or brother or mother or father, knows what’s unfolded within the walls of our original family, all the drama and secrets and everything else, even the best memories that have travelled over miles and years.
Some of these memories were shown one summer day when my sister and my father, plus all sorts of family from both my and my wife’s sides, piled into our Hamilton basement to watch what was once old and forgotten Super 8 film from as long as 50 years ago.
Two family histories shown large on two walls, eyes teary and big as saucers, all of us watching in wonder. I largely pulled the show together, and if I fall dead tomorrow this will be among my proudest life achievements. But to return to the truth of it, there’s not a family out there, not since Eden, that isn’t a mixed bag.
As small as a loaf of bread, we come into the world, through no choice of our own, tossed into a certain place and also into a certain family to be pushed and pulled and stretched and kneaded and forever marked in the heat of life.
In my case, the surprise, even to me, of saying “home” in that Dundas restaurant is because for years I was known rather emphatically as the prodigal son: the guy who had left the breakfast table early and the garden untended to go into the world to find the great whatever.
The adventure and pain, both, had just about killed me, never-mind anyone else at that time, and this wouldn’t have been lost on my sister. “Home, you say? Home? Hmm.”
And while each of our stories are ours and ours alone, as idiosyncratic as our fingerprints, it seems to me also that my story is not so different than yours. This is what it means to be in the human family.
We’re each born and are each dealt our cards. Then, in time, we realize what we want more than anything is to be known, even as we want to know others. But in our humanness we fear this as well, so we run even as every child has to run and every parent has to let them go.
Sometimes they return. Sometimes they don’t. Along the way, though, in the sinews of our being, we realize all the deeper that we’re made for others.
Which is not to say that family life is for everyone. I was single a good, ripe time, and we all know that some of the loneliest people anywhere are married with children. But it is to say that each of us is here for a reason. No, the party would not be complete without you.
It’s something to think about on a February weekend when family, and the different things that family can mean, is being celebrated.