Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speakWhispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.– William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3)
Initially my plan was to write about the consequences of being caught between cultures, between continents, of not having a strong rooting anywhere, of feeling the need to find out more about one’s family history as a way of grounding oneself and knowing one’s place in the world. I got to thinking about what has been lost by this moving around.
By a strange foreboding something happened that made me reflect on this in more detail than I would have liked. In the space of just under 12 hours I lost my great-aunt and my closest uncle. We are here, they are there.There’s this great distance that requires money and careful planning to cross. Weddings and other celebrations you can plan for, funerals, not so much; last minute flights can cost thousands so it’s not always financially feasible to travel, and even if travel is possible the idea of having to spend over a day flying and in transit is definitely draining for someone who is already distraught.
Death always causes me to reflect, to remember things. When I think about my great-aunt, I remember a serious woman who was apparently nothing like her cheerful sister, my grandmother, who passed away long before I was born. At first I was intimidated by her sternness, and was always slightly worried about getting on the wrong side of her, which never happened, but as I grew up I began to understand her more, and understood why my mother loved her so much. In the picture below she is almost 80 years old. It’s my favourite picture of her because I rarely saw her smiling. I wonder what her stories were, what she went through.
My uncle, on the other hand, was someone who truly understood me and was my confidante in many ways. He was constantly encouraging me, even up until the week before he died when I was frustrated by the progress I was making on my thesis. In the picture below he’s dancing with my aunt, his half-sister, at her engagement party. He was always so full of joy and life.
Death brought comparisons of culture to mind and of how things are done in different places. I remember when another uncle passed away when I was 17 years old, this time I lived in Africa. At this point I was face to face with African funeral rituals that I had been unfamiliar with. I watched with fascination and confusion as the houseboy and the gardener moved the furniture out of the living room and lay straw mats on the ground instead. People I’d never even met before travelled from far away to stay with us, they occupied every space in our large living room, (probably why the furniture had to be removed). I felt suffocated at the time because I just wanted some privacy, that’s how I dealt with grief, and still do. But the African way is clearly a collective mourning, perhaps developed to share the grief, to relieve the load. At the time I thought they were a slight nuisance, I didn’t like feeling helpless and restricted in my own home. I found it strange that a choir from the school my uncle runs came to sing. I wondered, why sing at a funeral? This was my Western mentality speaking, not understanding why one would sing at such a sad occasion. Sounds were something to note: the loud, unrestrained wails of the mourners at an obviously very emotional time and people were releasing these emotions. This was not a time to be “genteel” and “refined”; I think they very clearly knew the consequences of unshed grief.
But here in Canada my sisters and younger cousins and I are not equipped to support my aunt and mother the way people back home could have; we don’t know how to fully, we were never of that world really. Back then I could sense my mother, my aunts and uncles were comforted by this outpouring of support from family, friends, and even neighbours. What has struck me is even away from home, the older people in the African community here in Vancouver want to do things in the same way as back home, and they do so to the best of their ability. I think it also helps relieve the guilt of not being able to go home, of having chosen a life away from their family.* I also realize how important rituals are in life to alleviate grief.
For me, having shallow roots, even in Canada where I’ve spent most of my life, is something that has caused me concern from time to time but it has also liberated me. My definition of home is always changing but I realize now that home is where my family is. The desire to go to funerals in order to properly say goodbye, to attend weddings, to watch my cousins and little nieces and nephews grow up, that’s what I miss by being here. That is my loss.
* Now I’m reminded of an anthropology class in which I learned the different cultural definitions of family. My definition of family has always included my so-called “extended” family, I don’t really use the word “relative” to describe aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.