Does your family have any idiosyncratic customs, odd tendencies peculiar only to them and unaligned with any festivity or celebration?
Before you refer me to social services, let me explain. On the way down to London, we would always pass a hotel on the edge of a roundabout. More of a motel, if I’m honest. Anyhow, the main part of this motel on view from the road is an indoor swimming pool with full length windows on three sides (it sort of juts out from the main building; they are very keen to let you know that they have a POOL.) Subsequently, any swimmers are extremely visible too all drivers and disinterested passengers.
Such a mainstay this vision has become, that over the past fifteen years, whoever has occasion to drive past must immediately report, via text, to everyone else in the family, the number of people in the pool. I think it arose from how collectively concerned we were that the pool always seemed so forlorn and empty. This manifests itself in the message; if there is a bather, we treat itself to an exclamation mark (“2 in the pool!” ). If not, then nothing (“No-one in the pool”).
The texts are not met with raucous laughter or even a smile, but a grave nod, recognition that family business is proceeding as it should.
It runs a bit deeper than that. As an adult I have always lived away from my hometown, unlike my sister and most of the rest of my close family. Recently, I’ve begun to wonder what I have been missing out on. “No-one in the pool” lets me know that a) the sender is okay and b) that I’m still on the list.
If anyone unpicked their family psychogeography, they’d find it littered with unique family phrases and customs that have become so normalised through age and repetition that it is perhaps quite hard to see them for what they are. I think we develop something similar with friends quite easily, but I find the family stories and legends more interesting because they’re more difficult to negotiate. I’m not the first person to realise that families can be made up of pretty disparate individuals, so the process of finding things in common and then celebrating them can be quite fraught.
Some family customs are all about the past, defibrillating previous experience to enliven the present. At one particular restaurant that we would go to together, my dad would always leap over the three flower troughs that lined the entrance way, because I had once found it hilarious. So he’d do it every time at this restaurant, but not at any other eateries with leapable obstacles outside (there are quite a few once you think about it). It was the equivalent of pulling a well-worn goofy face at a baby, and simpleton that I am, the 3 leaps always made me laugh.
There are a fair few memorable characters who reappear anecdotally at gatherings and even during absent minded conversation. Most of them are unfortunate, I’m embarrassed to admit. There’s the girl who farted audibly on stage while doing a forward roll in a dancing competition, and we still howl just at the mention of her name; a line from a drunken conversation in a pub that we overheard which has no particular resonance to anyone else; ‘can’t riff for raffing’; a man called Monkey Riley; the noise my Aunt made on an answer phone message once. It’s true that a lot of these emanated from my father, who spent 40 years in newsrooms in the North East of England, which if you have read or seen The Red Riding Trilogy, you will know operate as a kind of bizarro holding bay. But they have only become funnier through the repeating and strangely comforting. My dad died 7 years ago, and the stories are a way of indirectly remembering him and including him in our conversation without becoming maudlin.
I could explain these customs to you in more detail, but why? They’re not interesting to you, are they? You’re probably thinking of your own right now: good. Family customs are like other people’s dreams; no-one else finds them as intriguing as the teller. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t bear the repeating.