Three Thousand Five Hundred Miles
Some of my earliest memories live within a sprawling, three-storey house in Manchester. I remember idyllic summer days in the jungle of a garden: stealing raspberries from the bush when I was sent to pick them; sneaking into our neighbour’s garden when my brother knocked a tennis ball over for the hundredth time; or, falling off the rope swing. I remember being routinely swung upside down by my older brother when he returned from school and watching Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure so many times that the videotape wore out. I remember hanging around with my brothers and their friends; I remember playing pool in the hallway with a cue far bigger than I was; and sabotaging my brother’s games of Tomb Raider by sending an unsuspecting Lara stumbling into quicksand.
But, then, my memories shift with our move to Scotland and my memories are that of growing up, for all intents and purposes, as an only child. With thirteen, sixteen, and eighteen year age gaps between me and each of my older brothers, my relationships with them developed more as an adult than as a child. A few years ago, I sat watching Pulp Fiction with my eldest brother – I was twenty-one at the time, he was going on forty. We came to the realisation that it seemed to be the first time in my memory that we had ever hung out, just the two of us.
However removed during my childhood they may have been, family was already important to me – it seemed a fundamental core of who I was, this slightly bizarre group of people to whom I was connected.
As I’ve grown older, so my family has continued to grow larger. Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, my first nephew was born, and I began to see my eldest brother more regularly than I had at any time in my life. I’d never really been shy of children but I came to the role of Auntie Suzey with some pride and a fairly high level of dedication for a teenager. Holidays and free weekends through my teenage years and into university would frequently be spent at one brother’s house or another, increasingly with a toddler on one hip.
When I faced the prospect of moving to Canada, one of the biggest stumbling blocks I faced was that of being so far from my family. At that time, I would talk to my mum a few times a week and usually see one family member or another in any given month. A few months living in London meant I spent frequent weekends at my youngest brother’s house, along with his own two children. Children to whom I’ve always felt, as with my oldest nephew, almost like a big sister more than an aunt given the age differences. Thirteen years between me and my youngest brother; thirteen between me and my oldest nephew. Eighteen years between me and my eldest brother; nineteen between me and my niece.
In the months before I left, I frequently found myself trying to explain my decision to two important people in my life – my mother and my niece. My mother, convinced I would – in her words – “find a man and never come back” is still frequently concerned with when I’m going to move back. My niece, an alarmingly intelligent for her age five year old, struggled to understand why I had to move quite so far away.
“It’s just something I have to do for me,” I told her, one wobbly afternoon, as she cried in my arms. Alright, fine – as we both cried. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“No, I won’t,” she grumbled, just as stubborn as every other member of this family.
While hardly a shocking revelation to me, the full importance of my family to me was something I don’t think I realised until I found myself so many miles away. Over three thousand five hundred miles away, to be precise. While they’re all only a video call away, I frequently feel the presence of the ocean between us, not least when hearing of them spending time together. Christmas passed and I watched over video chat as they sat around a board game, just as I would expect to find them.
As the winter began to tail off, with a sporadic and frustrating work schedule, I was feeling their absence in my life more and more acutely. I priced flights to the U.K. I also priced flights to San Juan in Puerto Rico, but that’s by the by.
I finally emailed my dad in early March and expressed my desire to visit, suggesting we keep it a surprise from my mum. After sending it, I had a moment of panic: I half-expected him to respond with disappointment or to insist that I would just have to get through it, that it was simply a part of living away from home that I’d have to adapt to.
But his warm heart shone through, as it always does when it is most needed, and he expressed not only his empathetic understanding but also words that stuck with me as I bought return flights to London:
Perhaps the way to think about it positively is to remember that life is ever so much emptier for those who, for whatever reason, have no home to pine for.
This bright spot on the horizon powered me through a few more blisteringly cold Toronto weeks, the promise of seeing my parents, as well as my youngest brother and his children. My mum knew nothing – no small feat for my dad – and neither did my niece or nephew.
Landing into London felt surreal, and the train from Gatwick to my brother’s house even more so. The landscape was so blindingly familiar and yet so different to the day-to-day life I was now accustomed to. I settled into a pub next to the station, exhausted and a little grotty from a nine hour work shift followed by the overnight flight.
My niece came in first, with my brother. She eyed me as she walked around the table with a high-level of suspicion. My mother walked in next, saw me, and declared: “I knew it!” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes – my mum has an irrefutable need to know everything and I suspected she didn’t know as much as she let on.
Now that she’d hugged me, thus confirming my identity, I heard my niece whisper to my brother: “is it really Suzey?” The next thing I knew, she was launching herself around the table and into my arms. My nephew, just coming up to three years old, was still slightly too young to understand the concept of a surprise but his beaming smile was welcome enough.
Although I only spent a few days with my family, it set me at ease. The comfortable warmth of arguing with my mum over my tattoos, or of my niece insisting I read just one more story, or of playing Tomb Raider with my brother. Even walking through the old windy streets felt somehow comforting, particularly with my parents by my side.
A short visit proved useful in a multitude of ways. The proof that a five day trip was perfectly feasible was useful to have and the vast selection of biscuits I brought home for myself and my Canadian roommate were well-received. It was exactly what I needed.
But, as I walked downtown the day after arriving back to Toronto, with the skyscrapers of the Financial District towering above me, and the cool sun beaming down, I couldn’t help but think to myself how good it felt to be home.