Last night I had a cry. I am not accustomed to shedding a tear these days: life has reached an equilibrium after the turbulence of the past 2 years. My work-life balance is as stress-free as it’s ever been, whilst still allowing us to keep the bills paid on time. The boys are growing and we are all healthy; life is ticking by. But last night I found feelings flooding back to me that I haven’t experienced for many years; feelings of attachment anxiety- feelings which can’t always be explained away rationally.
Though I may not have talked much about it recently, my desire to know more about my dad has remained in my thoughts. Momentum may have slowed, but I am still collating remnants of his existence. Recently I started to make tentative contact with someone who trained with him at drama school in the 1960s. Dad left behind reels and reels of 8mm cine footage which dated from his latter days in Australia in the early 1960s until his death in 1980, including his time training at Bristol Old Vic theatre school. These are the shaky, soundless images me and siblings watched projected on the kitchen wall in our nighties as kids; the flickering moving images I wondered over as a teenager, played on our family video recorder when mum had it transferred to VHS; the record of his life I poured over as an adult when we had it digitised onto DVD and set to a soundtrack of hours and hours of classical music. These 15 years or so of life compressed into 3 hours of moving images have been a reminder and a comfort, a history lesson and a research tool which I could pull out and serve as my shot of dad-fix whenever I needed it. Last night when I went to run it on our ancient laptop it appeared to be empty. Funny, I thought. Then I ran it in the DVD player: the same. Daddy was gone. I sat down on the sofa, and when my husband asked what was wrong I burst into tears. The DVD of dad’s cine film- it’s blank, I sobbed into his shoulder. Ever the practical soul, my husband began to Google how to retrieve DVD files from the hard drive whilst I tearfully texted a few people who might have another copy, my sister and my cousin. Within 10 minutes it became apparent one or both most likely had a copy, and if not the original 8mm would be somewhere at mum’s. Tragedy averted then, and perhaps a slight overreaction caused by toddler-induced exhaustion and/or hormones? But that spiky tightness in my chest was more than that, and a feeling I knew only too well and had had many times before, mainly growing up.
When I was 9-10 mum went to work for the first time. I took it badly. I remember being off school with chicken pox and being looked after by someone from church called Ruth. Even with the bribery of a Cadbury’s Caramel and a new backpack, I cried and cried and cried into the top bunk of my cabin bed when mum’s car pulled away from the house. Other times, I ran all the way back from school in a blind panic before the morning bell had even rung. On the first occasion I managed to make it back before mum had left for work: she was temping at the time and had no other option but to take me to the office with her. Another time, a family friend stopped me as I sped away from the school gates and took me back to hers for the day. Once, I remember being inconsolable when I realised I had left my pencil case at home. The lovely class teacher, Mrs Yates, took me into our classroom before lessons started and sat me down. Was everything ok at home?, she asked. What I couldn’t articulate was: my mummy has just started going to work everyday, and I never had a dad, and I am afraid and worried about this change- this separation! Was everything ok? Yes, is what I suppose I replied. She gave me her Winnie the Pooh pencil case to use for the day.
It’s fair to say that I love very easily. When we went on family holidays that involved hours in the car, I would apologise to one of my pillows for leaving it behind while I took the other one with me for the journey. When I first had the chance to have friends to sleep over, I invited 10 friends when 4 would have done as I didn’t want anyone to feel left out. I nurtured my friendships, often feeling protective of those who were younger than me in a way an older a sister would. When I got into relationships, I allowed myself to fall in love with open arms, while others played it cool. Luckily for me, the people I chose to be involved with loved me back in return. As the youngest in a large in family people would often ask if I was spoilt growing up, and I can honestly say the answer was, no. Spoilt with gifts, books, time, privilege that my older siblings were deprived of? No, but I was spoilt with love. Hand on heart, when I was in the middle of a human tug of war- one sister on each side and me in the middle, each pulling my arm to-and-fro arguing ‘She’s my baby!’– I did feel very loved indeed.
Loving so easily can be hard. With an open heart, events out of your control can cut twice as deep, and it goes without saying that living through two family suicides cut very deeply indeed. But without realising it, taking control is how I severed that anxiety I felt as a child. Becoming an adolescent gave me independence: I could catch the bus and the Metro into the big city every weekend and spend the afternoon in and out of the shops with my friend, PB; I could walk back from church on my own on a Sunday and leave my mum gassing in the church hall; I could cook potato waffles and chicken kiev for tea if I wanted because I was trusted not to burn the house down. All of these small elements of control made me feel safe and secure in myself, even when bigger elements of family life sometimes felt way out of my sphere of influence. Even when me and friends started drinking, I never let myself get so far gone that I was ‘out of it’. My hangovers were (and still are) legendary, but some brain cells somehow managed to hold on to that ‘control panel’ and keep me walking in a straight line, at least until I got to the taxi rank.
As an adult control looks like doing the things that keep us happy as a family time and time again. Some people like to visit a destination, tick it off a list, and see something new- not us. We have visited the same part of Teesdale every summer for the last 9 years because we had such an amazing week there as newlyweds on our mini-moon. We travel to France almost every year, slowly working our way through northern and central regions because we can’t get enough of the ‘Aire de’ lay-bys, boulangeries and red wine. We like security: we like the same.
Conversely, I don’t mourn change, in fact I embrace it. I have made a few radical changes myself in life- taking voluntary redundancy and later leaving my subsequent career being two examples. I realise change is a necessary part of life. I know that circumstances change and that nothing lasts forever. I know that my children won’t always be squabbling on the living room floor on a Sunday tea-time, but one day will be 6ft independent individuals with voices and aspirations of their own. And still, it is in knowing– signaling to myself- these changes, that I maintain my control. And in maintaining control, anxiety does not feature in my life.
I will get that DVD copied. I will hold on dearly to the mementos and fragments I have been collecting of dad’s life. I never met the man or heard him call my name, but pictures, and accounts, scraps of his writing and way he skipped along that sea wall with my mum in that silent cine film will form my memories.
‘The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading’
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go