Friday 20 July 2012

Matters of the heart

I’ve recently returned to London after a holiday in Italy, and for much of the week my heart’s been in free-fall.  It is simply impossible to leave my love of Tuscany behind.  Her ambience, her bonhomie, her bright colours and daily promise of beauty are too deeply etched.  I miss my friends, my favourite wine, coffee, food, restaurants, galleries, piazzas, routines and spectacular vistas.  For there is little to compare to the towers of San Gimignano, and in the valley beneath the cross-gartered lines of vine, olive and cypress, to whom I threw open my shutters every morning for the best part of three years.  It never failed to wrap around my heart and draw me in – the searing blue skies and white fluffy clouds an endless invitation to smile.  I feel I’m destined to long for her in perpetuity.  And for David, Michelangelo’s David, my friend and erstwhile travelling companion (though that’s another story.) 

But alas, there is little work in Italy during this international financial crisis.  So it’s to London I’ve returned and, more specifically, to my new apartment in Wandsworth.  In response to my ‘post-holiday-blues’ I’ve been nesting: one of the things girls do to make themselves feel better.  After finding somewhere for everything to go, I roamed Clapham Junction for an assortment of colourful cushions.  I put sunflowers in my bedroom, hung pictures on the walls, my hat on the door, and unpacked a pile of music I carried back from Tuscany.  Tinkling the ivories for a few hours helped wake up my rusty vocal chords, but there’s a regime of training to come before I get myself back to full voice.  It’ll happen though, as will my commitment to exercise and fitness, now I’m again in my own space with an opportunity to ‘settle’.

As I continue to make this space my own – something I’ve done thousands of times when moving around the globe over the years – the sentimental but most important things come last.  Opening the cylinder in which I’ve carefully protected a collection of children’s drawings, every nuance of the precious little faces of my nieces and nephews are vivid to me, shining, eager and full of affection, as Frankie Jean, Harry, Darcy, Molly and Oscar run into the backyard to present me with their farewell messages.  My heart lurches with the memory, the sense of separation intense, and I know this is the heaviest weight to carry when living “on the other side of the world”.  For, unlike Tuscany, the little ones change so quickly; and what is missed is gone forever.

Please indulge me.  I have twenty-nine nieces and nephews (if you count steps and partners) and they have long been the light of my life.  I remember the first time I held number one, my nephew Iain, in my arms.  I simply couldn’t believe such a miracle were possible.  Tears poured until my eyes puffed out like balloons and my father took a photo to immortalise the moment.  I remember too the feeling of never wanting to let him go… of being completely committed to protecting him… in the same second as I felt utterly unworthy to be responsible for something so tiny and delicate.

It’s been the same every time I’ve been introduced to a new package of soft squirms and wriggles… delighting at the tug on my finger and their wee individual features… as they struggle to open their eyes and check out who’s holding them… perhaps already aware I smell different to their mum.  A miracle, each and every one, who I adore with so deep a part of my being I wouldn’t hesitate to take a bullet for them.

After all, Aunty is such a cool role.  I'm an ever-enthusiastic baby-sitter.  You get to give (and receive) buckets and buckets of unconditional love.  You get to share joyous occasions, create unforgettable memories with every encounter… and the worst that can happen is that they stamp their feet and say “my dad doesn’t make me eat vegetables”… or (sob, sob) “but my mum said we don’t have to clean our teeth every night….”.   Yeah, yeah, I say.  Well I’m not your mum or dad so if you want to hang out with me then you have to clean your teeth.  And invariably they do.  The tears are quickly gone and the fun begins again… with cuddles, stories and songs… playing penguins and smurfs… playing piano and guitar… or with waking up to them jumping into my bed; which is profoundly appealing even in the same instant as my head pounds that it really would have been better if they’d waited a couple more hours.  And when they are picked up to go home, or I drop them off after another delightful sojourn, again I don’t want to let them go. 

Indeed if having nieces and nephews is one of the fundamental joys of my life – rich, pure and utterly fulfilling – then saying goodbye to them as I leave to cross the ocean, is reliably worse than parting from any guy.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had more than my fair share of passionate farewells and romantic pining, but nothing compares with the thud I feel when a niece or nephew says “miss you already Aunty Ju Ju”… or “but why can’t you find a job in Australia”… “why do you have to go away again”… or “you made us promise not to grow up… but you stayed away too long…”.   

Somehow I have learnt to live with it, despite the struggles, as I guess I must learn for the moment to live without Tuscany.  But happily there are compensations.

Little nieces and nephews grow up into big nieces and nephews.  (Go figure: I don’t know how that happens when I can’t possibly be ageing at a similar rate?!).   And last month I had the pleasure of a visit in London from Jay, the eldest son of my beautiful brother, Rohan, and his wife Julia.  Jay is a young man of significant value and promise in his own right, but his (and his brothers’) ‘stock’ has gone up immeasurably of late, for he embodies much of our dearly-loved brother, who we lost in the last year to a dreadful cancer and who we miss more deeply and sadly than words can express.

When Jay arrived in London, however, with his delightful girlfriend, Alexis, and good friend, Garrett, we were determined to make it a happy time.  He’d just graduated from High School in San Diego and it was an appropriate time to celebrate.  And we did – with walks on the Thames, dinners, drinks, laughter and of course theatre.  A good production of Jekyll and Hyde in the little Union Theatre went down well for an intimate experience, and an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps inspired us to think about what clever actors can achieve with little set if the concept and direction is imaginative.

The first evening Jay walked into my friend’s lounge-room and immediately picked up a guitar and casually started to strum as he spoke.  It was such a ‘Rohan’ thing to do that I nearly burst into tears, but I grabbed instead onto the comfort it brought and kept myself in check.  Then when Jay started ribbing my (then) relatively new (but already serious) boyfriend about his unwise choice to smoke… he seemed to be conjuring my brother Damian who is renowned for teasing… and oceans of distance (and the recent history of family sadness) faded for a while into a sea of familiarity and joy – joy that yet another nephew was branching out into the world to make his own way, to discover where he might best develop his unique talents.  I felt proud to be a part of that.  Proud and supremely happy to share a little of his adventure, knowing, as always, that my nieces and nephews, and indeed my brothers and sisters, are as important a touch-stone to me as I may be to them – wherever other hungers of the heart may take me. 

And with that I must put aside nostalgia, get myself out of this chair and into the park, which is Blessed today with sunshine and which, in London, one must never take for granted. 

The Olympics is coming and the city’s heart, like a child’s at Christmas, is bursting with anticipation…

I do hope she’s rewarded.