I am a sad mummy this morning. My second child, Isobel, got on a plane to New Zealand yesterday evening. She is twenty four. She aims to be there a year, maybe forever, if they will let her. Three of us waved goodbye to her at the station. As the train approached, I held her to me and kissed her cheeks over and over, telling her it would be alright, while sobbing from my gut. She cried too and said ‘I love you’ over and over, and I said it back, and then she got on the train and waved from the window. Fifteen year old daughter said ‘Someone should run down the platform…’ and then she did. We waved as Isobel waved from the window.
And then we went off and got on with the rest of our days – I bought food, made it, ate it, went out to a committee meeting. All the time, a small half of me was on the train, then on the bus, then sitting at Heathrow with my child. This baby, toddler and child who the younger children didn’t know. That’s the thing with large families: the older two had a space in their parents’ lives that was exclusively theirs.
They were babies when we were babies: I had Isobel when I was 26, I had her elder brother Ed when I was her age. We were off-hand, busy parents, always marching on to achieve…what we have now. When I sat on the floor with Ed and Isobel, it was in a chaotic household in south east London, and when we went out for walks, it was to tiny playgrounds. We ate sparingly and saved up for shoes, for treats, for toys. Our closeness is a strange clairvoyance: they learned to read the minds of people who were always flying by the seat of their pants, while assuring their tiny wards, carried on their shoulders – that everything was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Isobel became someone who seemed to understand undercurrents of emotion better than words. She always giggled, Tom remembers, was always smiling, as if assuring us that yes, it would be fine.
I came back from the committee meeting through the rainy, unlit, winding country roads, feeling like a failure. It is a totally undeserved moniker, but as a mother, the instinct is to keep your young near to you for as long as possible. As a modern, feminist human being, my tendency has been to usher the children out into the world – claim your place within it, we have always said. I sat and looked at Isobel’s baby album. What a shame we didn’t look at it together, when she was here. What a shame Tom didn’t sit on one side of her, and I on the other, and she in the middle, holding the album, turning the pages, the way it would have happened in one of those terrible movies they seem to make for the 3.30pm audience of Channel 5. I sat and cried, looking at all the grandparents taking turns to hold her after she was born: three of them gone. With them, they have taken collective memory, and it is a loss.
This morning, I thought about my grandmother – my father’s mother – who had five children. Two girls and three boys. My father was her fourth child: when he was twelve, his father died. He and his brothers were sent to boarding school. All three, in their twenties, got on a boat from Colombo, Sri Lanka and travelled to the UK, to seek their fortunes. It is so very hard to let go of your child, when you’re holding them and they’re crying and you’re crying, and they used to live inside you, and you carried them and loved them and supported them, like an addictive habit. How did my grandmother let go of three children? How will I let go of four?
And yet, I will. Because from those four children in the world, will come permutations of culture and happiness that I can only guess at now. We went to Beirut in the Easter break. Two or three shops carried a small advert for a horse shampoo called Mane’n Tail. I scoured the streets of Beirut for horses. There were none. There were, however, a majority of women with the most gloriously thick and heavy, dark hair swaying across their backs in the sea salt stung breeze. I ordered Mane’n Tail shampoo and conditioner from Amazon on my return, and use nothing else. I am alien to myself a lot of the time, because I was born and brought up in London, and ate British food (yes, that means curry most weekends) and drank British drinks. Thanks to the hipster culture, I have more coconut oil and coconut water in my diet, and feel more at home with it than I do with red wine – it is, after all, the main export of Sri Lanka.
Being an immigrant means the moving forward, the adapting to change, adapting to a different geography. It also means you are a magpie. You are someone who is always looking at the best all cultures can give to you. Last weekend, the four children lived in our house again, for three nights, revelling in each other’s company, listening to the music of their childhood, reading the books they collectively loved: Asterix books mainly. I made the foods they love – chicken curry and yellow rice, dhal, salads, and 15 year old made the Nigella chocolate cake that every feast finishes with. We sat in front of the fire and nattered. On Sunday, we took our Christmas walk with the dogs. I imagined that in a year or two, there will be additional people with the four, creating new permutations of our family, enhancing our culture, challenging us and making us move forward. We will travel to their new found worlds, and we will change and adapt and become better. Forward is the only way.