Getting ready for the family’s return . . .

Ye can wander all ways . . Ower the mounteigns white with snow; bright city lights, and the fyerce desert sun . . . . Ye can wander all ways . . . Never be shamed to think of hame . . .far in the vale, where the Eastern Allen runs [the chorus of Terry Conway’s iconic song, The Eastern Allen Runs]

It’s one of the recurring themes of this diary: the diaspora of our young people out from this rural idyll to the greater metropolitan centres of the world, and then, when we’re lucky, the return for a family visit.

We’re to be graced this weekend by the return of our adult children, with grandchildren in tow, and of course the house is in a bit of a tizz to get everything ready and presentable. Why? . . . I wonder, when we were never that bothered when they lived here?! That’s not true, of course, but I couldn’t resist a throwaway line. No, we must try to be neat and tidy, of course we must.

That means hoovering duties for moi, and clearing out the fire, replacing the fire guard against inadvertent little fingers (doubtless we’ll want a warming fire at some point, unless we get part of the continental heat wave by the end of the week), and trying to organise my tools better (!higher mostly). We’ve already spent days getting the garden into a reasonable state for running around in, and now it’s the house turn. Cooking efforts, fresh bread (especially fruit loaf for our big grandson’s toast), dusting off the family board games, stocking up on sufficient beverages of all kinds — the list runs on and on.

Our challenge is to work hard to get ready, and then to try to relax during the visit, so that everyone can be chilled, cheerful, comfortable and chattable. It’s the real conversation, no doubt, that we want to create the space for; that is, not just the surface froth about the weather, the logistics of daily life, or even the repeated family stories. No, our aim is to just get under the skin of this family, to find out how our beloveds are doing in themselves, how they’re coping with their own hopes and fears, their worries and their joys. Else, what is the point of the busy tizz to prepare? Are we preparing for empty chit-chat? I hope not. We can have empty chit-chat with our cat, anytime we like. Family times should surely be able to encompass life more real.

That was one of the reasons why I put ‘The Elf Hole,’ my home-bar, together, in our shed, because there’s something about pub conversation that can get to more nitty-grittiness than you might reach in the living room, say. And if I have something to do, like pouring drinks from behind the bar, then I can take a back seat too, and do some honest listening. Real conversation means real listening, after all. But I was stymied, a bit, during one recent family get-together, when the conversation, which was at least lively, got stuck on cocktail recipes and protocols — not anywhere near where I’d hoped to reach. Getting into the deeper recesses of anyone’s mental equilibrium, even and particularly family members, is probably harder than we might imagine.

So we fall back on the comfortable, easy conversation . . . and sometimes that’s great, of course. Comfortable, easy, family times. Yes but. When that’s all there is, it can become merely cloying, merely filling the air so that no family ructions could dare to fall out of a gentle probe. ?And then you come to the end of your life and you say, ‘Well, we talked nicely, kindly, about the weather, didn’t we? Or the footy. Or the garden.’ Really? But what if a family member is hurting? And nobody asked about them? How they really are.

I’ve hit on this trope before, but really I’m just working my way around, myself, to trying to be caring, concerned, listening attentively, ready for either joy or despair, or even equanimity, during the family weekend. And that’s not too much to ask of myself, all in all.

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