A Family – Now, Then and Again
Generations are markers in time, points at which one group of people can reasonably be said to have different experiences from another. But it doesn’t always quite work out that way. When I was a teenager my mother commented that my sister, who is ten years young than me and 12 years younger than my brother, was effectively of another generation. It certainly seemed that way until she was into her twenties – our perceptions of the same things differed not only in personal predilections, but also along broader social and age lines. Now that she’s thirty those distinctions have blurred a great deal and our experience is similar even though we live in different hemispheres and have very different expectations of life.
My eldest son, who turned 21 today, tells me this sort of thing happens when you get old. In a long, long distance call between a residential district in Hong Kong and an industrial suburb in Townsville, northern Australia, his voice almost sang with mirth. Old, for him, is something he’s only slowly approaching, and it might yet remain out of reach. But compared to many of his friend’s parents, I’m probably a little young to be his father – I was 19 when he was born. In a sense, the generational lines blur a little between us, and more so because we’ve spent most of our lives apart, to my great shame. We’re just trying to be friends if we can, and that breaks down expectations that either of us should act in any precise way simply because we belong to different generations.
And when I spoke him, my son mentioned something else that made me think across generations. He was waiting to be served at a KFC outlet that I frequented at his age. Only now, writing this post, did I recall that it was the same outlet my father managed when he moved our family to Townsville back in the early 1970s. Thoughts of generation change came rolling back in until I remembered that life plays improbable tricks on fathers, sons and their sons. In the last few days of my fortieth year I am two years older than my father when he died back in 1983. Life divides and death draws closer – we’re of more or less the same age now, my father in my memory forever in his late thirties, me climbing past forty. Not quite of a generation, but in the grey middle ground between.
So the generations align and misalign, once and again. My son asked how his younger brother and sister were doing and I realised at almost two, my younger son is around 19 years younger than his older sibling. In other words, I’m old enough to be my little boy’s grandfather. My daughter, the only of the two that my older son has met in person, is about to turn three. Her energy and bossiness certainly make me feel like a grandfather, never quite understanding why she does precisely what she does, or how.
Together, and including my 18 year old step-daughter who lives with us here in Hong Kong, the kids (though half are adults) make me immensely proud of what they’ve done and who they are. From three different countries and blurring the lines between generations with relative ease, they remind me that the arbitrary distinctions we impose on ourselves herd our expectations only to the extent that we allow them. Between and around generations, across distances too large to contemplate without the comfort of minimising measurements, my family gets by as something approaching a family because it manages to confound its own expectations. We’re a little confused, but it never hurts.