Monday, 18 November 2013

For family, far away

Our international family in 1983 (with one brother, Stephen, missing.  He was then living in Lesotho).  Back row from L-R: my mum & dad, living in Oxfordshire at the time; Barbara and Michael, South Africa; Elane & David, London; Derek & Judy, USA. 
Also proof that my brother Richard and I (we're the very blonde children at the front) have been looking awkward in photographs all our lives. 
They say blood is thicker than water.  I always understand the truth of this when I spend time with my extended family.  Scattered across three continents by the apartheid-era South African diaspora, I've always lived thousands of miles away from the people I'm most closely related to.

At a memorial service for my uncle (my mum's brother) this weekend, I thought about how, despite the distances between us, we strive to maintain relationships.  My mum is one of five and, now that David has died, her remaining three brothers live in three different countries.  If I counted, I could probably tally the amount of times I've met most of my twelve cousins on one hand.  I spent my childhood waiting years to spend time with family, before being plunged into intense and emotional and wonderful weeks together during their very occasional trips to the UK.  As an adult, I've spent scant but precious time with people during my rare visits to the US and South Africa.

And yet... and yet...

I feel close - I am close - to almost all of my Kotze family.  I have cousins I see once a decade, if I'm lucky, yet they understand me almost as well as the friends I see every week.  When we're together, we talk about the things that matter and we talk about the things that don't and we laugh and we cry and we play games and it's all real.  There's a connection there, with these people whose blood runs through my veins and mine in theirs; a connection that transcends miles and years apart. 

Living so far from family, you can forget that there are people in the world who belong with you.  When we're together, I see it in a look, an angle of the face, a familiar nose or curl of the hair.  The similarities that say: these are your people, this is where you come from.

The stories we tell ourselves, about who we are and where we come from, are inextricably linked to family. I see this in my 6 year-old niece's questions about our family and her recitation of names: which uncle is "grandma's" (my mother's) oldest brother? What was "granny Helen's" middle name? The photographs that line my bedroom wall are of grandparents, family weddings, my parents as small children; I see the same photographs on the wall of my cousin's apartment in Brooklyn. And so, despite the miles separating us, we all share a common experience of each other and of family history. 

Time together is always bittersweet.  As much as we find joy in our times together, it serves as a reminder of all the experiences we can't share with each other.  And never more so than on a sad occasion like yesterday's, when the reality of mortality hits hard and I wonder how many more visits from my uncles there will be; how many more times my mum will see her remaining brothers.

But through the marvel of social media, my cousin from Canada already knows what I've been up to before he sees me (his first question yesterday, "How's the head?"!).  My aunt and I trade blog links, from South Africa to England and back again.  My cousin in New York can Facebook details of her husband's art shows and her dance performances, so although we can't be there we can read the reviews and watch the videos.  Email enables my mum to keep in contact with her brothers, even as she goes deaf and talking on the phone becomes near impossible.  Even when far apart, we can be involved in each other's lives and maintain our close relationships.

My favourite photograph of the Kotze clan, from 1976 (well before I came along) - one of the last times all five siblings were in South Africa. The watermelon in the middle is a very typical Grandpa touch!


  1. To live thousands of miles apart yet still maintain strong bonds with your family is really special, and the family photographs are lovely.

    1. I love that because of the distance between us, whenever we were together we'd get summoned for these big group photos. It's nice to have them to look back on.

  2. Lovely post. As well as social media I am very thankful for skype - and the ability to talk with family and friends so far away for free whenever I want. Love your family pics.
    Claire xx

    1. Thanks :) I wrote it in a splurge of words after returning from the memorial service, so I'm glad it's coherent! We have never made the most of Skype - I think my mum especially would really benefit from seeing people's mouths when they speak (although Skype drove me up the wall when my relationship was long distance, all those delays and crashes when you're talking about something important - grrr)

  3. Such a lovely post. It's great that your family has stayed well connected, The internet really helps this, but still I think it takes effort and it says a lot about a family. Love the photos :)