I am 14 years old and my mother's aunt and uncle are coming to visit. I've never met them. They are my mother's father's family - the Scottish Dutch side. My mother has cleaned the house for their visit and I've helped. We have swept and polished and dusted and now the house is beautiful and clean, but we are filthy. My mother is panicking because she wanted to wash and change into clean clothes and our guests have arrived early. She tells me to make tea and entertain them while she gets cleaned up.
I take as long as possible to make tea and hide in the kitchen, but I can't stay there forever. I take the tea through, and the tray with plates of little cakes and biscuits. They make me sit between them on the couch. My great uncle Laurence looks nice. He looks a bit like my grandfather, his older brother, but he's thinner and he smiles more. My great aunt Gertie looks okay. She has bright eyes like a bird and she's staring at me...
She says, "You have cousin Connie's ears. Do you see that Laurence? She has Connie's ears, but that nose… that nose is Doreen's."
Great Uncle Laurence smiles and eats a biscuit. He asks me some simple questions I don't remember anymore.
Aunty Gertie is still watching me. She sips her tea and continues talking, "Your mother now. Your mother has the same eyes as great aunt Ida, but I think her face shape is more like uncle Len's. Not like your aunt. Now she is exactly like aunty Phyllis... although Phyllis has Margery's teeth and that's unfortunate."
As I sit there between them I feel myself disintegrating. I am floating away on a sea of unknown relatives who all have prior claim to my "bits". Who am I? I am a patchwork collection of family pieces. There is no "ME". There is only Connie's ears and Doreen's nose and Gaileen's smile. I always thought I was ME. Unique. Complete. But now I'm finding out that I'm simply a collection of family body parts. Nothing belongs to me. I feel lost and strangely taken apart, like a human jigsaw puzzle.
Many years passed and one day I found myself at Great Uncle Laurence's funeral in Johannesburg. After the service all the family gather at the old family home. They are all there, all my Scottish-Dutch cousins... blonde and built like Vikings, even the girls are over 6 foot tall. I am 5 foot 3 and dark. I feel like a pygmy. I wander around, squeezing between unknown people eating plates of food. I feel lost again. I go to sit on the floor by great aunty Gertie. She is smaller and thinner, but her eyes are still very bright. We sit in the corner and watch five generations of family talking, eating, remembering… An unknown relative asks who I am.
Who are you?
Who ARE you?
Who – are - YOU?
…and Aunty Gertie starts to talk, "This is your second cousin, Michelle. She is your grandfather's brother's daughter's daughter. Can't you see? She has your mother's ears, but when she smiles she's the image of your sister."
As she talks I feel myself being connected. Before I felt taken apart, but here at this funeral I am being woven into the family by my ears and my hair and the colour of my eyes. I start to see things. My cousin Al has his great uncle's jaw and his daughters look like Aunty Gertie's daughter's daughter. And how come I never noticed before that we ALL have the family nose? It is a big nose, it's hard to miss. A long sharp Scottish nose. Cleopatra would have envied that nose! I watch these unknown family moving and talking. Family groups laugh the same and their body language is the same too. I notice, to my embarrassment, that my own personal portion of family stand out like parrots in a flock of chickens. We may look like all the others, but we talk louder and we wave our hands around. My grandmother's Greek-Irish blood shows only in me physically, but all of us carry it in the way we talk. We are louder and more emotional. We are more fun… we are embarrassing. We are something I sometimes hate. We are something I cannot escape.
…and suddenly I understand. This is what family means. It isn't being torn apart - it's being created out of a hundred different people who are all unique and yet... we carry the same ears, the same noses, the same smiles. Wherever we go in the world we will take that with us. We will always have this "home" within us. It lies in our blood and our genetics. We cannot escape it - we are the sum of all those parts. We are family.