At the new year the mood is often sombre. I was all, “Next year all our troubles will be far away,” but my seat-mate kept murmuring: “2013, same shit, different number.” My only answer was a lemon and raspberry sponge cake with piped rosettes of cream mixed with lemon curd. It looked, I thought, a bit frothy and Parisian, like the temporary velcro’d skirt of a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Take that! (The fellow did. He took it, literally, on the chin.)
Missing my own children, who were with their grandmother, I offered to put my host’s 10-year-old son to bed, and soon found myself reading him a bedtime story from his book of choice: the Steve Jobs’s biography.
“Are you a tycoon in training?” I asked the lad.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said. He was wearing brushed cotton tartan pyjamas and I wished for a moment I was too. Bits of gold from my dress had settled on his cheeks and forearms, taking him to a whole new level of angelic.
I heard myself explaining the odd thing in the text he wasn’t sure about, such as what acid was. “Oh I know,” he said. “Like in the ’60s.”
“Yes,” I said, and then donning my metaphorical bonnet and pince-nez, I added for good measure: “Of course, people didn’t realise then that it was very bad for you, in that it can send people into troubling states that they never recovered from but people are, on the whole, more sensible now.” I thought I wouldn’t add, for balance, “Although, of course, some people, you know, swear by it.” (I wondered what they teach about such conversations at the Norland nanny school. I often wish I could audit some of their courses.) Jobs himself is reported to have said, “LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”
We left Jobs about to go to Reed College in Oregon and I went back to the party, feeling sleepy. After a while, I started talking to an Iranian woman about her family’s startling bereavement practices. It wasn’t the jolliest topic but I am always eager for new ideas when it comes to soldiering on in hard times. What I heard astonished me.
“When we lose someone, we don’t hurry to spread the news,” she said.
“So, you mean you like to keep it just among very, very close family for a few hours?”
“Well, you know, sometimes even close family doesn’t need to know right away … ” I was surprised by this because in my world the receiving of new information, or more exactly, the dynamics of who knows what, is fraught; being the first in the chain carries with it a great deal of status, and not being told things in a hurry makes people angry and upset.
The hierarchies that exist in large families are often most accurately glimpsed by the way important information is disseminated. “So you might wait a day or two and work out the best way to break bad news?” I asked.
“We might wait a week or a month or two. Sometimes more.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In my family we don’t hurry. You know, sometimes we just say that the person has gone away, travelling or to live abroad. It’s simpler that way. Maybe we send postcards from that person three or four times a year to the parents. We Photoshop pictures. I can give you an example: my aunt was not close with her daughter, and 12 years have passed since the daughter died, but we haven’t told my aunt yet. She doesn’t need to know. She still gets cards and messages regularly. Her other daughter sometimes leaves voicemails from her sister’s phone number. It’s not a problem.”
“But doesn’t the mother’s heart break that she has not seen her daughter for so long? That her daughter doesn’t want to see her? Mine would.”
“She understands that she is very busy. Life is busy. It’s enough. There’s always a very good reason that she cannot come.” I’ll say.
“Perhaps, deep down, she knows?”
“Yes, this is possible.”
“In which case, receiving the cards and messages could be a bit odd.”
“Well, odd things are not so unusual in life. Odd things happen in life all the time.”
“That is true.”
Grief is so strange and alien that when someone who is always there is suddenly no longer around, receiving regular updates from that person, cards and emails, might well be the least of it. A teacup in a storm. Could it even be soothing? Commemorative? I am not sure.
Troubled, I nipped downstairs again to check on the child. His long dark-lashed eyes were closed, and he was smiling in his sleep.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt