Last Thursday I took the girls to Stratford-upon-Avon for a day of performance workshops at Stratford Arts House. I got talking to a woman in her 70s who was there with her six-year old granddaughter. Her granddaughter lives in the Peak District and, with her younger brother, was visiting her grandparents in Stratford during school half-term.
‘Do you have other grandchildren?’ I asked her.
She told me her grandchildren are, to use her words, ‘scattered all over the place’. As well as the two in the Peak District she has three in Herefordshire and two in Watford.
I told her she should count herself lucky and explained that, because we live on a boat, Lily and Katie’s three grandparents have greater difficulty in pinning their only grandchildren down and generally don’t get to see them very often.
I thought about that conversation as I considered the emotional and relational aspects of our chosen lifestyle. I thought too about the relationships of my childhood and about how in the past five and a half months Lily and Katie have spent more time with their grandparents than ever before.
I grew up in the same house as one of my grandmothers and, from the day I started school until my final year at school, thirteen years later, I went to my other grandmother’s house for lunch every day. My aunt Cissie lived in our house too and my uncle Tom visited almost every day. I was raised as much by my grandmothers, Cissie, Tom, and my aunt Lily and uncle Jerry, as I was by my own parents. I moved between those adults knowing I was cared for and loved and that nothing bad would ever happen to me when I had all those people (and many more besides) as well as my wonderful parents looking out for me. It probably made life a bit easier for my parents too, knowing all those other trusted family members were helping to raise me too.
Julian and I have had a taste of that in these past five months. The girls adore their Grandma and Granddad and the feelings are mutual. How different a prolonged stay has been to the short weekend or weeklong visits they’ve enjoyed in the past. The girls and their grandparents have gotten to know each other better, developed routines around each other, have learned from each other, and have really enjoyed each other’s company. My parents-in-law have been there for Julian and me too, taking care of the girls and of us, making life a lot easier for us in the past five months than it would have been if we had attempted this temporary return to the UK without them.
So all of this is a slightly long-winded rumination on the impact our lifestyle has on our relationships with family and friends. I know that even if we lived in a house we might not live close to other family members, but at least we would be more sedentary, easier to pin down and easier to make plans around. In summer 2014, when Mammy was planning to visit us in October, we advised her to fly into Malaga. We didn’t know exactly where we were going to be by the date her visit rolled around, but we knew we would be somewhere within a two hour drive east or west of that airport. We’re fine with that level of fluidity in our lives, but we appreciate that it is more difficult and stressful for family members who like to know where they’re going when they plan an overseas trip! Not everyone is as fly by the seat of your pants as Julian and me!
Living on our boat, our relationships with our parents are maintained primarily through telephone calls, Skype, emails and text messages. The girls chat to their grandmothers on Skype regularly and their grandfather telephones a couple of times a week. But because of our remote and ever-moving lifestyle, I think our relationships with other family members suffer. We’re rarely at home (in either the UK or Ireland) for family get-togethers – weddings, birthday parties, funerals, annual events such as Christmas or, in my case, annual anniversary Masses for deceased family members. And so our lifestyle has caused the loosening of ties with extended family members that might be stronger if we were more sedentary. I know our family is always there, but I regret that Lily and Katie don’t have as strong relationships with their extended family as I did.
And then there’s the matter of friendship. Living on a boat, moving around all the time, we often develop short but intensive friendships, particularly with other sailors. Live-aboards with children seek each other out, and the children develop quick friendships. Julian and I have developed true friendships with some of the parents of those children, and have yet to meet a set of parents that we didn’t enjoy hanging out with for an afternoon or a few days. We’ve also been befriended by many people without children aboard their boats – older couples, single people, and so on – who have enriched our lives. In many cases we continue to keep sporadic touch by email and those emails usually end with hopes that we will one day meet up again.
But those short friendships are quite different to the long-term year-after-year, through thick and thin friendships one can develop when living a more sedentary life. When times are tough or when times are good it is the friends I’ve had since I was four or eight or seventeen or twenty-three or thirty-nine that I turn to, because they are the ones who know me best. I remain in touch with them by Skype, email, telephone and social media. Deep true friendship takes time and that is not something we have a lot of when we are all moving off in different directions in our boats.
Just like us adults, the girls also don’t have sufficient time to develop lasting friendships with other children or adults, and that is something that both Julian and I are very conscious of and sometimes concerned about.
But I also have to remind myself that everyone’s experience of growing up and of friendship is different. Mine, though it seems idyllic to me in hindsight, is only one model for family and childhood. Many children grow up far from their extended families; many families move house regularly. No doubt uprootedness can be traumatic. But so can rootedness, if your roots are in the wrong soil or stunted by the wrong conditions.
Aboard Carina we are the model nuclear family – two parents, two children. Our first relationships are with each other. We are, by necessity and by choice, each others’ best friends. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish I had one of my other best friends around – the women who’ve know me for years – to let off some steam with, share a bottle of wine, have a good womanly chat.
Julian and I encourage the girls to keep in touch with their grandparents and, to a lesser extent, with extended family members (if you’ve got a family as big as mine you’ll understand!). We also encourage the girls to make friends along the way, no matter how short-lived those friendships are going to be. Because getting to know other human beings is surely one of the greatest joys of being a human being.
I ended the post earlier this week by saying I would choose boat over house. And after thinking about family relationships and friendship I say the same. Relationships have to be approached, negotiated and performed differently (says the anthropologist..haha) but no matter where we live, what seems important to me, as a parent, is nurturing in my children an openness to getting to know and understand other human beings, and sharing something of themselves, no matter how fleeting or enduring those encounters might be.
To My Friends by Primo Levi (my friend Michael Harkin sent me this poem in a letter in 1997)
Dear friends, and here I say friends
in the broadest sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.