In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy opines Все счастли́вые се́мьи похо́жи друг на дру́га, ка́ждая несчастли́вая семья́ несчастли́ва по-сво́ему, but I would beg to differ. In the 21st Century unhappy families may each be unhappy in their own way, but happy families are certainly no longer all alike.
Our understanding of what constitutes and defines a family has changed beyond recognition in the last 40 years, and in ways that would be completely inconceivable to Tolstoy and his world 140 years ago.
There are an amazing number of people who have birthdays in December: It is beyond me why anyone would choose to have a baby in December [even the Good Lord hung on in there and waited until the 25th when he was off the cusp and could be born as a Capricorn] but Many do.
In the interests of full disclosure I have to admit my oldest daughter was born in December. But moving on.
My daughter, my brother, my oldest friend, and a whole lot of friends and acquaintances have their birthdays in December which, together with Christmas parties and end of year function, makes it a busy month even for an hermetic recluse like me.
I attended two birthday parties today, in many ways so similar but in other ways so totally different. Joy, love, family, faith and friendship were paramount at both: the celebrants were women, of the same religion, and the same love of family – two were even of he same age. So, similar but totally dissimilar.
I joined a Catholic convert and her husband and four grown children – ranging in age from 32 to 36 – for a wonderful family lunch which I helped prepared. Melon wrapped in the most exquisite prosciutto, slivers of smoked ham, pepper salami, black mission olives, sweet potato artisanal bread, organic nuts, pickled onion. To die for.
It was the birthday of the mater familia and I was honoured to be included with her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. We said grace and sipped wine and imported beers and mineral waters.
We sat on the deep veranda of the 1896 mansion overlooking an huge green garden big enough to contain a tennis court, never mind a croquet law: Adirondack chairs and riempie benches were the order of the day… The family bought enormous bunches of flowers for their mum, and the enormous dining room table groaned under the weight of vases.
But then it was time to move across a few blocks and join another family for another birthday: N’s spouse J was turning 65, and her daughter D was turning 50. The garden was small but exquisite, about 30 people sat around on plastic chairs for a Blue, Beers and Burgers party while the two birthday girls greeted guests.
The guests were mainly lesbians, social workers, members of AA, or part of J’s exuberant Lebanese family. There were cigarettes and speeches and singing and clapping, and although there were rain clouds and a few splotches and a threatening rumble of thunder, we sat outside while J swigged straight from the bottle of champagne and replied to the birthday speeches that had been made.
Like the earlier party, J thanked her family -extended as it is – her friends, her faith, and most of all her wife, N. Glasses of coke, fruit juice and wine were raised, children shouted with excitement, and there were cheers and laughter while the burgers were braaied.
We left when the heavens opened: but God waited until the speeches were finished before opening the clouds and letting rip. The gift table, piled with bags and boxes of colorfully wrapped presents, was moved inside and the guests hurried after it to escape the deluge..
Two wonderful parties, full of joy and celebration. Both strict Catholic households. But one with a married lesbian couple and their lesbian daughter and all their ‘family’; the other quieter, more traditional, a Catholic couple with their children, their grandchildren, and a friend – me.
What will it take for people to understand that love is love, and family is what you make it, no matter what? I’m sorry Tolstoy but times ave changed: these families are not alike, but they are both happy, in different ways.