Here, an image we all aspire to in one way or another as Christmas approaches. Back then, Norman Rockwell was trying to capture an America that was overlooked. Ironically today, his paintings have become an ideal which people around the world now seek to emulate.
This, despite all the complications that Christmas brings. And by this I mean the clotting together of family, the pooling of genes around minced pies and brandy, roast fowl and sprouts.
After years of sporadic calls from my dad, in which he would drop the non-committal promise of a visit (“Yah, most probably I’ll come that way in December”) my father has done the unthinkable and turned up. No one believed he would, of course. My cousin, who was meant to collect him from the airport, told me that he’d told my dad to ring him once he’d actually arrived. He didn’t want to hear about flight numbers or arrival times beforehand, because he didn’t expect him to come.
Now he’s here. His reason for coming is not to see Rosie and me, of course, although that’s part of the plan, too. His reason for finally making good on his word is the fact that my aunt, his eldest sister, is dying. She’s 81 and has cancer which has metastasised in all her vital organs. The doctors have given her six months.
So, my dad is here to spend Christmas with her. I was planning to do the same, but of course, my dad hasn’t come on his own. He’s brought his wench with him (if 60/70-year-olds can be considered wenches). I didn’t know this, of course, until we spoke yesterday:
Dad: “Your cousin is coming now. He’ll drop us in an hour.”
Me: “Who’s us?”
Dad: (says wench’s name)
Me: (silent for a moment before) You know she’s not coming here to my house.
Dad: (surprised) No?
Dad: (silent for a moment before) Ok. Well I’ll see you anyway.
I spend the next two hours in a state of agitation, wondering how it is that my dad could even countenance bringing that woman – the woman he cheated on my mum with for most of my childhood and had a child by (a child, incidentally, who was born on Christmas day, when I was 16) – to my home. I’ve told him many times before that I would never be in the same room as her let alone speak to her, but whenever I go to Canada to visit the family, he tries to take me to his house to meet her. He seems pathologically incapable of understanding what his actions cost us as a family, despite my telling him very clearly that when it comes to this, the past isn’t the past.
Not a Rockwell Christmas
For all his broody silences and lack of sentimentality, my father seems to think we are living a Hollywood movie or, indeed, a Rockwell painting. That we will all somehow sit together and share a meal at Christmas. That’s all of us, including my other cousin (my aunt’s daughter), her husband (who recently smashed a jug over her head, thus hospitalising her), her children, my dying aunt, my dad, his wench, my daughter and my recovering alcoholic sort-of-ex-husband.
I won’t even go into the other cousin (the one my dad is staying with who collected him from the airport and is also one of the sons of my dying aunt) who also touched me inappropriately when I was 13, in a way that still confuses me and makes me wonder whether it ever happened at all. And yet, when I see him looking at Rosie, I’m filled with dread while still somehow smiling and offering him juice and a bite to eat and continuing to watch him hawk-like whenever he’s around her, always calling her away from him or putting myself between them.
When my dad comes over, he is with my cousin (yes that one. And yes, I smile and offer him juice and some food and touch him on the shoulder to say goodbye.) My father, who was always so active and fit, looks old. White haired, he stands with a slight hunch. He’s got bunions so painful he finds walking difficult. For a moment, I feel sorry for him. I hug him and sit him down with Rosie so they can build a lego car together. They play for a long time, while I cook lunch for all of us. I book tickets to a play and make plans for us to see the reindeer in Covent Garden. Never once do we mention his woman.
We pretend, like we always do, that we are a typical family. And in our own way, I suppose we are.