Reel truth about family life in the past


A Dad's life:There I was. Smooth skinned, relatively wrinkle free, puffy faced from beer and next to no exercise. I’m only getting brief glimpses of myself, though, because the camera was trained on the elder who, at one, was already mugging away as the star of the show. Every now and then I flick the camera around to catch myself in a sort of knowing way.

But the message is clear, I’m besotted with this child and no amount of wry, wringing expressions can disguise the fact.

Our recent move threw up a few tapes, a machine to play them on and, miraculously, leads to link said machine to the TV. We are gathered around the box watching these shows from the past like re-runs of Dallas. The younger child, who barely features as she was born just before the damn recorder went kaput, is surprisingly enthralled. “Is this bit just all about Christmas Day?” she asks. “Is there more dancing?” or “I want to watch another one about holidays.”

She sees a narrative, a story arc, where there is none. Every now and then the camera pans to the corner of the room where she sits in a rock-a-tot and gurgles, but the mainstays are family slagathons and her big sister parading in a princess dress at centre stage. Basically, your average extended family shortly after the first grandchildren have been born.

Fact or fiction

But it’s the notion of the arc that hits me. The younger can’t distinguish between fact and fiction; she expects to get in from school today, do her homework, eat dinner, then settle into another episode of My Life in Nappies. I wonder does she expect action, misunderstandings, romance and betrayal? Does she expect “Northsiders” with a big, thumping theme tune? The camera panning up the Liffey before settling once again in our kitchen as I ask my mum does she fancy another cup of tea and she demands that I turn the bloody camera off. Riveting stuff.

It doesn’t matter. All the child sees is her family in forms that are instantly recognisable but slightly different and in an environment that she doesn’t remember. A kitchen that was designed to seat four but where we regularly fed 10; the dark cave of her parents’ old bedroom with her Moses basket alongside the bed, the floor littered with the detritus of nappy bags and piles of washing. Chaos with babies; a theme familiar to anybody with a couple of under-fours under the roof.

Then forgotten nearly as quick. While it is all brand new to her, it is familiar to me, but as if witnessed through a gauze. I see us 10 years younger, mucking our way along, doing all sorts of things that we imagine will secure our family, improve our status in life, develop ourselves professionally and personally, and most of all get to grips with what the hell we’re supposed to be doing as parents.

Still just swimming

Ten years later, everything has changed and nothing to plan. Well, to be honest, we had no plan then, we were day-to-daying it and presuming at some point everything would become clear. So, in that way, nothing has changed. The plan was, to quote the popular film of the time, to just keep swimming. Nothing catastrophic has happened: incredibly, everybody who features in these clips is still around, even the cameos, but we’re still just swimming.

I guess that’s the beauty of it. I can look at these recordings and tell you exactly what the people involved were doing at that time, and the hopes and aspirations each of them had. And of all those people, only the wise old women – the mother and the mother-in-law – are in the positions they envisaged themselves being 10 years later. Everyone else – all the sisters, children, friends, cousins and interlopers – they’ve all wound up on different paths, parallel and perpendicular, but different to what they expected at that time.

The world had a wobble and some people’s best-laid financial plans took a beating, but not ours, ours never made it past the prepare-to-plan stage.

The ensuing movements were as random as lottery numbers and as valid as anything we could have predicted at the time. We have wound up where we are through a combination of risk and chance, and where we are is good.

It’s just seeing my fat, soft face from 10 years ago, blown up on to the screen out of the blue, makes me wonder about my worn, lined face 10 years from now. When one child may be in college and the other should be doing her Leaving Cert. Or maybe one could have joined the circus and the other might be shelling militia in East Africa.

Seriously, who the hell knows?

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