Flesh and blood: Why families are complicated things

Past hurts, present slights. Families are complicated things, which is why I stay above the fray


When I was in my 30s, unmarried and broody, my niece was the centre of my life.

I was thrilled when she was born and insisted that my sister use the name I had for her, which is why the poor girl ended up with three first names on her birth certificate.

I wrote columns about her, we spoke on the phone every day and I kept photographs of the milestones of her life.

From the time she was a baby till she was nine, I visited her almost every year in the United States. It was my favourite time and hers too.

She would write me welcome notes which she'd paste around the house for me to discover. She'd plan midnight feasts which we ended up having soon after dinner and not at midnight, because she couldn't wait.

Or she'd squeeze into my bed and pester me to read Watership Down because she was dying to discuss the adventures of the rabbits (I never got beyond the first chapter).

She turns 17 in December and I last saw her two years ago, when my sister's family visited. She was no longer a little girl and wanted her own bedroom. She spent a lot of time inside, behind a locked door.

These days, we hardly talk on the phone. The last time was maybe three months ago. It was for two minutes or so when I asked her things like how she liked school.

She was, as always, sweet, and made appropriate cooing noises when I updated her about my dogs. But after a while I - we - ran out of things to say.

The only news I get from her are through my sister, or when I look at her Facebook, which she updates rarely.

Her brother, who turned 11 yesterday, is even more of a stranger to me. We never were that close when he was younger and when he was here two years ago, he got along better with H than with me.

Our phone conversations go like this:

So how was your day, Josh?


What are you doing?


How are your cats?


Do you miss Singapore?


What do you miss?


I usually give up at this point.

I'm not a very good aunt. I help pay their school fees and give them the occasional hongbao, but I don't send them birthday or Christmas presents.

I suppose the current state of affairs is not unexpected.

They live far away, which makes meeting up difficult. They have their own lives doing things I have little interest in. My niece is into softball which I know nothing about. My nephew likes Star Trek (I think) and I'm not a fan. Besides, I have moved on and have other priorities now.

I also came to the realisation some years ago that much as I might love and dote on them, they're not mine. It's unlikely the love I give will be reciprocated in the way I might want or expect, not because they are ungrateful kids but because people just aren't built to love their aunts and uncles that much.

Love (and, conversely, hate) is reserved for their parents. I'm not their parent, so best to keep things light, not get too involved in their lives, and have a pleasant, harmless relationship from afar.

It's like me and my aunt Taiko in Japan, my mother's only sister and surviving sibling.

I've met her only four times in my life and she's always been kind to me. I'm fond of her but because we can't communicate, don't know her well.

Two months ago, she did an unusual thing. She asked my mother to buy her a black shawl and send it to her. She had never asked for anything before.

There are many funerals in her village, my aunt explained, and sometimes she has to be out in the open and it is cold.

My aunt and her husband moved from Tokyo to a village in Shikoku island more than 15 years ago to retire. Unfortunately, he died and she was left alone in a house flanked by the ocean on one side and the forest on the other.

It's a beautiful place dotted with orange plantations, but it's isolated and the people there are, like her, very old. She's in her 80s and never had children, and it can't be easy for her to go shopping for shawls at her age and in an area like that.

When my mother told me about my aunt's request, I felt bad. To think I could have been buying her presents all these years but seldom did beyond the occasional box of tea.

I volunteered to get the shawl and spent a pleasant time looking for it at Takashimaya. I bought two - a black cashmere one she could use at funerals, and a grey one fringed with delicate purple embroidery.

A week after we sent off the shawls, a parcel from Japan arrived. It was from my aunt and stuffed with packets of seaweed, kombu and katsuobushi which she probably got from the village store. I was happy, and also sad, to see it.

Family ties are complicated things and I've yet to come across a family where everything is truly sunshine and smiles.

Past hurts, present slights, future provocations, silent treatments, ganging up against one another - it's all par for the course when it comes to one's flesh and blood.

Which is strange.

What is it about having shared genes and a shared past that make us so sensitive to each other? That makes us take umbrage at things we ordinarily wouldn't? That makes us unable to forgive a deed that, if it had been committed by a friend, would have been easily forgotten?

Why do relatives have the power to provoke the best - and worst - in us? Why are our worst quarrels with our kin?

There are, of course, advantages to being close to your relatives, but my experience has been that the closer you are, the more likely things can go wrong.

I love my niece and nephew and I know they love me. When it comes to the crunch, they will probably be there for me and I for them.

But meanwhile, distance makes the heart grow fonder and I like to keep it that way.

As the comedian George Burns said, "happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city".


Twitter @STsumikotan

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