I have a tendency to think of things as "fixed," even though I know they are not.
You would think that a person who moves every year or so would have a worldview that resembles constant flux, yet it is not so! Changes catch me unaware; change can still surprise me.
In the last week or so, relationships all around me seem to be undergoing changes . . . and I am reminded, again, that life is just one ongoing transition. Those famous lines of Yeats', "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," keep occurring to me. People die; marriages end; friendships fade; children grow up. All of our seasonal ritual, and all of our attempts to fix routines, are just flimsy, imperfect bulwarks against the inevitable encroachment of change.
On the weekend, one of my husband's "aunties" died. Not an aunt by blood, actually -- she was in fact "just" a neighbor and family friend, elevated to "aunt" status many years ago. Yet in every way, her connection to the family was unassailable. None of the (now middle-aged)children of the family could remember life without her. As a woman without children -- from the time when childless women "just got on with it" -- she had become a surrogate mother to the five rambunctious children who at times overwhelmed their own mother. She had offered food and a quiet place to study; she had replaced buttons and let out hems. In later years, roles reversed a bit and she became more taken care of than caretaker. Her place at the Christmas table was more consistent than that of any of the children. Every Friday, she came up for a shopping outing -- followed by tea. She was always there; always seemingly the same. Ninety when she died, Auntie V was a relic from a previous age. She never learned to drive, and her activities were confined to an almost rigidly circumscribed domestic sphere. Her attitudes, her beliefs, her topics of conversation, her stories, her clothing, her hairdo, even: all of these were fixed and unchanging. "Isn't she marvellous (for her age)," people would say. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, her conversation drifted from predictable to repetitive; her clothing, which always looked much the same, turned out to be the same outfit, worn over and over again. A nephew (her heir) took the decision to put her in a nursing home, and then she quickly declined. She seemed to be eternal, Auntie V; but of course she wasn't.
Isn't it strange how things can drift for awhile, before you properly notice? And then when you do notice, you realize how utterly they have changed.
I have an old friend in the area -- not so much an intimate as a fixture -- who I've socialized with for about ten years. When we moved back to England a couple of years ago, I sensed that something was not quite the same. She had lost a lot of her zest and sparkle. She seemed withdrawn, not just from me, but from all of our old crowd. Last week an unusual circumstance threw us together, and I guess that I probed a tender spot with the kind of direct question which sometimes disarms. She confessed that she was laying down plans to end her marriage. Years ago, as fairly new parents, we had met. She and her husband seemed so close then. Convivial and generous to a fault -- the champagne was, literally, always flowing -- they seemed so simpatico. But apparently they have been drifting for a long time now, and not even anger remains. Just indifference on her part, and unkindness on his.
Once you get to a certain place in a marriage, it seems like all of that accumulated experience should add up to an insoluble bond. And yet it doesn't; not always.
On Monday, a friend confided in me that her little son was experiencing his first heartbreak. "Daisy" had been his best friend since the first day of school, and she had given him a reason to want to go to school -- a place that he otherwise associated with unhappiness and frustration. For months they had been inseparable, but then -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- she began making new friends. The tighter he clung, the more she wanted to get away. He had developed a sort of fixation with Daisy, and she had eventually withdrawn from him. Maybe it was nothing personal. Maybe it was nothing more than discovering that she was a "girl" and he was a "boy," and that in the world of six year olds they could not have the same interests or loyalties. But whatever the reason, his innocence has taken a knock. Being rejected for the first time has opened his eyes to the sometimes harsh world of social interactions.
We are all obsessed with romantic love, but friendship love can die, too, and it can hurt just as much. The expression "fast friends" implies a bond that is fixed firmly in place, but I've also noticed that friendships which are fast in the sense of forming quickly and intensely have a tendency to fade. I try to keep all of my friends, but some friendships have eluded me. Once or twice in my life I've had a friend who withdrew from me and I never quite knew why. Was it something I did? Or was I just incidental -- just in the way of someone who was undergoing changes?
As my teenaged daughter has put together her "list" for her 14th birthday party I cannot help but notice how much it differs from last year's list. As she tries on different identities, as she moves up the ladder of "popularity," the friendships seem to come and go. Last year she was new to the school and happy to be friends with (almost) anyone who befriended her. This year she is more selective. Last week I took her and a friend to a concert for her birthday treat. In their navy school uniforms, pony-tailed and fresh-faced, they look like young girls. But clothing and makeup can utterly transform, and this new vampy young woman is a stranger to me. How did she learn how to put on eye makeup? Where did she learn those dance moves? As young teens all around me swayed to the Jonas Brothers' insipid music, and sang along with Avril Lavigne's rather strident voice, I felt as mumsy and old as I never thought I could or would be. When did concert music get so loud?
When my children were younger, I derived a more (shall we say) genuine pleasure from doing the things that they wanted to do. But as they have established their own independent lives, so have I . . . and now I notice that I am more grudging about sacrificing my interests and likes for theirs. As I trudged around Legoland yesterday on my youngest daughter's school trip, I couldn't help but reflect that I am more conscientious than enthusiastic about dispatching certain parental duties. I freely admit that I do not like "amusement" parks. I do not want to pay a lot of money to (mostly) stand in line in order to eventually be made nauseous or bored. And that is the high point! Never mind the long drive to get there, the crowds, the bad food, the inevitable whining and tiredness (both mine and the children's). The last time I went to Legoland was seven years ago. It was cold and wet, and the three year-olds were too young to ride anything. I mostly remember sitting in a canteen, feeling miserable, and trying to clean up the hot chocolate that my toddler had spilled over her last change of dry clothes. On this visit, the toddler had turned into a tall and fearless girl who actually found most of the rides a bit babyish and "lame." As we left the theme park, it occurred to me -- and it was a most happy thought -- that perhaps my Legoland days were over. Not all changes are bad, after all.