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For the past week or more I’ve been saying to myself, “I really must write my next article for ANC.” I fancied writing some kind of Christmas piece but kept falling short in the ideas-department. It’s not that I didn’t have any holiday cheer, but… no, wait, that’s probably exactly what it was. Life has been hard, friends, and for some reason I was extra-emotional this year, what with one thing and another, so my Christmas cup was a bit on the empty side. Fortunately that changed, and Sem and I had a really lovely, peaceful, happy Christmas. If you celebrate anything this time of year I hope you had a festive time, too.
Part of what helped to fill my heart was seeing photos of the children of my friends’ children. Yep, another generation is with us, giggling, stretching, learning, growing… smiling through the lens and straight into my heart. Special mention goes to bright-eyed, adorable Jakub and the personality-packed cutie, Lillian. I’ve known their mamas since they themselves were born, and now in the blink of an eye, they have their own babies. I knew Jakub’s and Lillian’s great-grandparents for almost all of my life, from when I was as small as they are, now. It shouldn’t be that astounding to me, but it is. Anyone else hearing the chorus of ‘The Circle of Life’ at the moment, or is it just me?
If you’ve never lived far from the people you care about, you might not know how much of an impact photos can have, in the best of ways. There’s a little wistfulness at not being there in person, yes, but mainly it’s gratitude that I feel, for living in this photo-centric age when so many events are photographed and shared. It’s not that long since far-flung friends and family rarely exchanged photos, perhaps including a few snaps in a handful of letters sent over the years. We have so few photos of my cousins in Germany that I pretty much know each picture by heart. My parents probably didn’t send that many pictures of us over to Germany either, which isn’t a complaint, just an observation. Things were different in the days when photos were on film which then had to be developed and printed in order to be shared. It means, though, that these captured images are etched upon my memory because they were rare. Click! One cousin is two years old, grinning into the camera with a sticky marmalade smile. Click! Another cousin is nine or ten, posing by the Christmas tree in one of the most beautiful snapshots I’ve ever seen. So it was, with my cousins from both the north and south of Germany (all of us now in our 50s and 60s). Sadly, I hardly know them, especially my Bavarian cousins, but I’m fortunate that some of us have found each other on Facebook. Say what you like about Zuckerberg’s creation, I’m glad it exists; thanks to the ease with which we can share our lives these days, I get to “see” my loved ones even though it’s from a distance. I marvel at family resemblances: in one photo, wee Jakub looks just like one of his great-grandfathers, and in another, Lillian’s expressions perfectly mirror her mother’s when she was a similar age. I know it’s just genetics but sometimes it seems like magic, and seeing friends’ children growing and changing in ‘real time’ is truly a gift.
One of my second cousins in Germany said long ago to someone, about his family, “Oh and there’s some aunt in America somewhere…” With time I might become vaguely known to this next generation as a sort of ‘auntie’ in Scotland somewhere, and that’s okay. I love them even if they won’t know me. They don’t have to know me or love me back; it is enough that they now grace our world, and are loved and cherished by those whom I love, too.
The reality is that other than family, some of my nearest and dearest have moved away from Pennsylvania, too, so even if I hadn’t come to Scotland we would still be pretty far apart. Where once we saw each other often, we would seldom see each other at all, if I was still there. I find that so hard to fathom. When you leave a place behind it remains kind of frozen in time, in your mind but of course it’s not really like that: life goes on for everyone. Knowing that “back home” is a vastly different thing than it used to be is a little disconcerting, but being able to see things as they change helps me to stay current. It gives me a warm flicker of happiness to look in on the lives of those I love when they share photographs or updates about their lives. I am apart, yet still a part, and we remain connected, which means a lot to me.
Not everyone shares their lives on social media, so there are family members I ‘see’ much less of, and some I don’t know at all. It’s so strange to me that I actually have a very big family; I just don’t know many of them. But the ones I do know, I love, even if we have very little contact. It means a lot to be able to see how they are doing, however sporadically. That goes equally for those who are my chosen family; the friends who are so close that we might as well be related. I lost many of them to distance when I moved but I still love seeing them on screen, when they share photos. I’ve seen wedding snapshots that were so filled with joy I could feel it across the miles, and it doesn’t really matter if I only know one half of a happy couple, it’s just great to see the love between them shining through. Being able to watch little ones growing up from infancy is so lovely, too, even though I will likely never meet them. My life was once beautifully entwined with some of the friends whose stories I now mostly only observe, but I am so happy to be able to do so. Every new photo brings perspective not just at how quickly life roars past, but how full of love and connection it can be.
If love itself could build an actual bridge (with, it must be said, some kind of hyperfast transportation system), I would be with those I love at every opportunity. I’d hug my Mama every day and I’d visit my friends and their kids and grandkids often. I’d make up stories for the wee ones and be that crazy auntie filled with nonsense and silliness and the occasional bit of wisdom. But love doesn’t build those kinds of bridges. Fortunately what it can do is create links that transcend distance and time, so even if I can’t be with my family and friends I can still know and love them and – when they share their lives online or in emails – take part in a small way by instantly being able to respond. Even if the bonds of friendship have slackened a little bit, the foundations are deep and strong. Isn’t that a fine thing!
This piece ran away with me. I had no idea when I sat down an hour ago and started to write that this is where my column would lead, today. It has nothing to do with Christmastime and contains no end-of-year musings, which is what I thought would happen. Instead, on this quiet evening my thoughts found their way, as they so often do, to the people who mean so much me. I am so glad that I can still see them live and love, and grow and change, all from an ocean away.
Love is as close as a thought, and thoughts can be shared so quickly these days, through the help of the internet. So for my part, even though I am a spectator rather than a real participant in the lives of the people I care about away across the sea, as long as they keep sharing their photos and stories I will continue to smile along with them when they are happy, cheer on their accomplishments and triumphs, and hold them gently in my heart through the harder parts of life. Above all, I will love them no matter where in the world we all happen to be.
I wish for all of you, dear readers, a new year filled with love and contentment, and all the happiness your hearts and lives can hold.