Seeing an extended Argentinean family I was staying with on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day, I felt the family was indeed of two halves, and each unhappy in its own manner. There was a more obviously working class side that I was with on Christmas Eve; a comfortable middle-class one on Christmas day.
On both days there was a sub-text that couldn't be or wouldn't be addressed. Three weeks before Christmas Eve, a woman in this large family committed suicide. She seemed happier than she had been for years, she was soon to go on a cruise holiday, one daughter had just got all As in her school leaving exams, and the other daughter came second in a regional swimming contest for her age group: she was fourteen.
Nobody quite knew why the mother had taken her own life, and while I had a theory of my own, perhaps I will keep it to myself.
For much of the evening everybody laughed, talked over each other and ate the large selection of meats, salads, quiches and sweets that the host family put on, the family with whom I happened to be staying. When the husband of the late-wife arrived with his two daughters, the hugs and kisses they received indicated clearly yet subtly their loss and fellow feeling in the firmness of the hug offered. However, it wasn't until after midnight, after the fireworks out on the street, after a Santa Claus arrived and after the presents were opened and a toast shared, that the girls burst into tears. They were consoled by their father and also by both grandmothers.
I stood there, a bystander to the grief but not quite a stranger to it. I was visiting Argentina only for a few weeks, and staying with the family of a lover, Myriam, whom I had met a couple of years earlier when travelling through Spain. I had invited her over to Scotland; she asked me to visit her country. I had more money and time and there I was. If I wasn't quite a stranger to the family's grief, it was because for several nights after I arrived, so soon after the suicide, I held Myriam in my arms as she cried herself in and out of sleep.
However, I noticed my own eyes were moist, my sympathy for the girls greater than would seem justifiable, and yet my feelings hopefully were not insincere: that they were not only a response to a sentimental moment, but to a sense of vague, un-locatable loss that the tears gathering in my eyes were trying to find.
Who was I feeling for in this moment? Was it for the children that had lost their mother, or maybe for the mother who did not want to continue living in this world? Or was it for my own father who had passed away, a couple of years before, and whose inheritance was the very reason I had enough money to make this trip, or memories of my own mother leaving me as a child many years earlier in Glasgow?
One day my mother had dropped me off at my paternal grandmother's house, estranged as she was from her own parents, and didn't return for three years. My father had left her, and she had left me, but when she eventually returned she was happy, healthy and only a little guilty, it seemed, as though aware that leaving her child for several years was better than leaving this world altogether, no matter if I was seven when she left, where Myriam's cousins were fourteen and nineteen respectively. Was I feeling their loss or reflecting my own? Was I caught in the sentimentality of the family environment - the 'insincere' emotion - or within this family dynamic was I creating a pocket of space for my own memories? I would like to think it was both, as if our most sincere feelings come out of a reaction to the situation and at the same time unavoidably comment on our own pasts.
The next day we went to see the other half of Myriam's family. This was the father's side, and the richer half, as Riccardo was the son of a wealthy engineer who believed his son - one of eight children - had married below his social class, and who had never lived up to the family's demands and expectations. Myriam's father was a salesman who had earned enough to buy the house I was staying in, to put his three children through private colleges, and had saved money so that he could shortly retire.
This was not regarded as success in a family of doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers, though he was perhaps the most self-made of them all: he had never gone to college, but had lived off his own wage since leaving school at sixteen. However, he still often felt intimidated, Myriam had said, in family gatherings.
I suppose I could see why. We arrived at the largest house in this expensive suburb in the south of Buenos Aires, one of the few wealthy suburbs on this side of the city (many of the wealthy lived in the north), and we were welcomed at the gate by a husband and wife in pool attire on this, my first ever thirty degree Christmas day.
The house in front of us as we walked through the gate was clearly a villa, possessed of an expansive sitting room with several rooms off it, and open double doors that led to the kitchen and dining area, the upstairs, and also into the back, where the hundred square metre garden contained a twelve metre swimming pool in the middle of it. There were already about forty people standing and sitting around the pool, and, as I was introduced to them all, realised that I needed a family tree to keep up with all the cousins, the aunts, the uncles, nephews and nieces.
The atmosphere was quite different from the night before, where the sub-text gave the party a tender underpinning. Here the people seemed suspicious, cruel or too enthused by or dismissive of this stranger in their company. My Spanish was minimal, yet where the previous evening this was compensated for in body language that was willing to engage; here it was as though the body could not accommodate others, and each person would, with a couple of lovely exceptions, come up, offer a few words in English, and depart, showing they had a grasp of the language that the others would then seem to mock. When one of the house owner's sons came over and introduced himself in English, and asked how I was enjoying my stay in Buenos Aires, I replied very much, and we exchanged a few more words, but as he returned to his table, others giggled and laughed and mimicked his accent. Had the table been made up mainly of his friends, this may have made sense, but the table was of mixed age: one of those laughing at him was probably in his sixties and happened to be his own uncle.
The sub-text was not that of empathy, but instead a strange one upmanship where people were competing with each other in wit and abuse: even the water pistols the children were shooting with seemed tools of humiliation as someone was sprayed full in the face while the other children laughed.
At one moment Myriam's brother, Gustavo, started playing with the children, and a few splashes of water from the gun landed on someone's T-shirt. It was Riccardo's eldest brother, and his already angry face took on a vindictive expression as he pushed Gustavo into the shallow pool. He could easily have bumped his head on the pool floor, but managed, as he fell, to shape his body into a diving movement.
What Gustavo couldn't save, it seemed, was his mobile phone, a present he had received the previous evening from his wife. It went into the water with him, and was ruined. When he confronted his uncle with the soaked phone, the man replied that was his problem.
The incident was symptomatic of the whole day, and just as on the previous evening I was disproportionately moved by a situation that was a family tragedy, this day I was as indignant as anyone about what had happened. Who was this man, I asked Myriam? Was he usually so obnoxious? At one moment I became so angry as I saw him sitting scowling at whoever passed in front of him, that I wanted to go over and throw him into the pool myself.
I asked Myriam why they all accepted what he had done, and she said that it was the family way. Gustavo shouldn't have let himself be pushed in. She told me a story about her grandfather: when each of the boys was around four he would ask them to get up on the wall and said that as they jumped he would catch them. They jumped, but their father let them fall, saying that they had learned an important lesson in life, and that they were to keep it to themselves. Thus when it was the next brother's turn he too would fall, ignorant of his father's false claim, but the moment of fear, the possible mild bruising, was quickly replaced by the feeling of empowerment; that each one in turn had power over his younger siblings. I said it reminded me of a fable Brecht tells somewhere, and was surprised that it was elaborately played out over a period of years on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. No doubt it had been utilised elsewhere also.
During the rest of the trip Myriam and I became increasingly close and talked about the possibility of her getting work in Britain, or at least Europe. The type of work she did - international marketing - allowed for the possibility, and though we both often felt saddened by the distance that would soon be created when I got on the plane, we both thought of her late cousin and her daughters, and knew our estrangement need not be permanent.
When I returned to Britain I visited my mother in Glasgow where she was still living. Usually I would go through and see her every couple of weeks from Edinburgh, and on this first visit after I got back I found myself trying to explain to her some feelings I had when travelling on the other side of the world.
I asked her for the first time about why she left, and wondered whether she might have done something even sillier if she hadn't made the decision to leave me at my father's parents. I told her what happened to Myriam's cousin, and said that she had left two children without a mother - would she have been better leaving them much sooner and perhaps saving her own life?
My mother looked at me pensively, and said it was as though I was trying to say that her culpability was less great than the cousin's: that by leaving she still allowed for the possibility of my seeing her some time later; indeed giving us the opportunity to have the very conversation we were in the middle of then.
Yet I think what I wanted to try and explain were my strong feelings towards events that were very incidental to my own existence, yet at the same time vitally important to it.
I also told her of the other apparently minor incident at the pool. I mentioned that this side of the family was competitive and also often harsh towards each other, and I related the story I'd been told of Myriam's grandfather with his kids.
I found myself explaining to my mother in a conversation that started over dinner at eight, and ended after midnight, aided by strong coffee, that life was indeed strange. I said that it seemed I had gone to the other side of the world to understand my feelings towards my own childhood by looking at the lives of people I had never met before. I believed that it was as though both incidents combined made sense of what I felt after she left me: that she also, unavoidably, dropped me from a wall, but that she had done so without any malice; as if out of emotional necessity rather than authoritarian manipulation.
When I came close to crying on Christmas Eve, I felt they would have been the tears of a curious sense of relief, aware that I still had a mother whom I could talk to and love. I had neither lost her because she had taken her own life, nor lost myself by becoming hard and callous.
Yet as I talked, as I explored and expressed my emotions, was I not cruelly forcing my mother to confront her own? After she made another coffee, and we both stood there in the kitchen, she asked me if I would give her a hug. She had never asked before and, as she held on to me for what must have been minutes, tears began to form in my eyes. I felt in that moment not my own pain or even my mother's, but that of two teenage girls on the other side of the world for whom that hug would only be possible in memory and restless sleep.
© Tony McKibbin