IT’S ALL RELATIVE
four writers dissect their odd family traditions.
By Caro Cooper -
As a kid, I never liked sleeping over at friends’ houses. This is not unique to me, I know. But I never liked it because all my friends’ families were weird. Or at least, different from mine. They watched kid-friendly movies, didn’t have strange names for their genitals, didn’t have a chocolate cupboard stocked full with teeth-rotting treats and, most notably, they weren’t deeply superstitious.
In my family, it was sacrilege to say you did well on a test at school. You had to come barrelling through the front door screaming about how poorly you did. If we said a positive word about our efforts, my mother would hush us and tell us not to jinx it. We were a house of super-nerdy kids who always did well enough, but the fear of failing through confidence was imprinted early. We also weren’t allowed to watch our dogs or cat eat because my mum said it upset them. When the cat started tucking in, we all tiptoed out of the room.
Thanks to years of expensive therapy, I’ve been able to leave most of these oddities in the past. I can refer to my vagina as such, rather than as a ‘ujakapibby’, which is what I believed it was called for far too long. Even so, though I may have made some progress, there is one superstition I cannot leave behind.
In my family, whenever an ambulance passes, whether you’re in the car, on foot or at home, you must hold your collar until you see a dog. If you disobey, someone you love will be dying in the passing ambulance. We all obeyed. This rule was so deeply embedded in me that I carry on holding my collar to this day. It’s unfortunate, because I live and work on an ambulance superhighway next to a hospital. It was the catalyst for adopting my one-eyed, antisocial dog.
I hear the siren, grab my collar and call the dog into the room. I’m now brave enough to watch him eat his dinner without fear of deathly repercussions, though. That’s progress, right?
I have no idea where this ambulance superstition came from or why my parents decided it was the right thing to teach their three highly anxious children, but parenting in the ’80s was a different vibe. Our family would be driving down the highway and an ambulance would go barrelling past. The hour-long trip from Brisbane to the Gold Coast would then be spent with all five of us nervously holding our collars, desperately searching passing cars for a dog. Any dog would do, we weren’t picky.
It wasn’t unusual for friends to walk past on the street and see our family trundling along in unison with our elbows sticking out, our necklines clutched in our hands and our heads swivelling like carnival clowns. If you were to show me a picture of an ambulance in a Rorschach test, my response would still be ‘dog’.
At some point, someone – probably my brother, who was the most mortified by everything we did – said that pushing your belly button negated the need for the collar-and-dog process. It was a measure we used only once our arms grew too tired to keep holding up. I didn’t really believe the belly button push could replace the collar holding, but my arms often grew so tired that I was willing to sacrifice an aunt or two.
In retrospect, it probably should have been my friends who felt weird sleeping over at my house. Getting yelled at for looking at the cat and being forced to hold their collars to prevent their parents from dying – probably not their idea of a great pyjama party. It may have been a weird experience, but not one of their family members died while they were with us, so perhaps there’s some truth to this dark magic.
By James Colley -
Love is a given in our family, but that doesn’t mean it’s something precious. It’s an obligation. You love your family in the same way that you go to work or you pay your rent. It’s just something you do.
Our gift-giving has always reflected this. If the old saying ‘it’s the thought that counts’ holds true, then our thought is always, “What’s something I vaguely remember you like?” Once we discover somebody has a particular interest, we latch on to it and pummel it into the ground. I’ll never forget my sister giving a heartfelt appeal to the family in the days leading up to her 15th birthday, begging us to understand that, while it was true she said she liked dolphins once when she was eight, she no longer needed any more dolphin paraphernalia to express that belief. She did not love dolphins, nor did she hate them. She had no intention of studying marine biology. It was more that they were an animal and she was eight. Still, were you to look into her room and see the dolphin lightshade, dolphin bedspread, dolphin calendar and glowing dolphin bedside lamp, you might have thought this was the room of the world’s biggest dolphin fanatic, whose one purpose on this earth was to fully express their love for the dolphin through material goods.
Our complete lack of effort extends beyond just the gift selection, though. There’s also the presentation. This is where we come to the family tradition: Colley wrapping.
In most cases when receiving a gift, the wrapping is the best part. It’s all anticipation. It’s fun.
You get to rip something up and no one can get mad at you for doing it. Everyone understands this except for those weirdos who carefully peel back the sticky tape, acting as if they’ll use the paper again, which they won’t, and even if they did, that’s still weird. When someone starts carefully unwrapping their gift in this manner, I don’t think that they’re an environmentalist
– I think they’re ruining the fun moment of seeing someone open a gift, and also they should probably be on a government watchlist of some kind. But I digress.
Colley wrapping is a simple and subtle art. That is, you put the gift in a plastic bag and hurl it in the direction of the recipient. The hurling isn’t a necessary part of the tradition, but it’s part of the tradition nonetheless. I must admit, it was started by me when I was five years old and woke my sister up on her birthday by throwing a stick at her and saying, “Pretend it’s nice.”
Over the years, the plastic bag wrapping has become an essential part of gift-giving in our family. Even if the item you’ve purchased didn’t come in a plastic bag, or even if you’ve made something from scratch, it’s essential the present is then placed into a plastic bag before being handed over to the lucky recipient. Understandably, the family rarely, if ever, gifts one another a live pet.
Still, you could say there’s a certain
American Beauty-style grace and preciousness to the tradition. Maybe what we’re really trying to communicate is that, like this unassuming plastic bag, our love for one another may not be impressive, but it certainly will not biodegrade?
Sure, I suppose. I mean, Colley wrapping is obviously driven primarily by laziness, and not at all by potent metaphor, but that speaks to the very core of what we started with – and the strongest bedrock that any family member could ever offer: the understanding that, for better or most likely worse, I am obliged to love you.
By Kate Stanton -
Where did you grow up? If you answer with a shrug and an enigmatic, “Oh, all over the place,” you’re one of my people. I moved to a new country every two or three years until I was 12. I was raised with heaps of itinerants like me: army brats and other ‘third culture kids’ – the children of global aid workers, wealthy business people and dodgy Carmen Sandiego types who were obviously spies. My parents were diplomats, and diplomatic postings were usually two to three years long. Every now and then my folks would sit me and my sister down and tell us, gently, that it was time to move again – to Islamabad, Beijing, Taipei, and so on.
I lived my life in two- or three-year increments, and so did most of the people around me. It was perfectly normal for a friend to say in passing, “We’re moving to Moscow.” I knew in theory this wasn’t true for everyone. I knew how ‘regular’ kids lived because I’d studied them by watching The Baby-sitters Club and Full House. But I marvelled at the relative permanence of their lives. DJ Tanner, for example, was born in San Francisco, and would probably live there until she died. How positively romantic!
Just before I started high school, my parents arranged for us to stay in one place for a while. They chose to settle in suburban Virginia, in the US. That’s when I began to understand that the way I grew up was pretty freaking weird, and that most parents didn’t regularly uproot their families for faraway lands. I remember visiting a new friend’s house – somewhere her folks had lived for 40 goddamn years, can you believe it? – and casually asking her dad when they planned to leave. “Never,” he said. “But don’t you have anywhere
else you have to go?” I asked.
I noticed other things, too, like how my friends had known some of their friends since kindergarten. Plus, their houses had designated walls they’d use to mark their changing heights. I really felt the sting of deprivation, then; I’d never been anywhere long enough to mark our walls. I went home that night and demanded to be measured against the doorframe.
Once, a killjoy paediatrician warned my mum that such a nomadic lifestyle would turn me into a shy recluse with attachment issues. But fuck you, doc, because I adjusted pretty well, and got used to the peculiar joys of suburban living: knowing your mates would stick around, loitering every summer at the local pool and waiting desperately to be old enough to skip town.
I did turn out to be a wee bit neurotic, though, and realised later that I’d acquired a pathological fear of accumulating stuff. In my family, ‘stuff’ was the ultimate enemy. Belongings were like ball and chains – charming but unnecessary responsibilities that weighed us down and prevented us from leaving at a moment’s notice. The government could call tomorrow, after all, and then we’d have to be off! Is that toy bear worth the five cents it will add to the cost of our shipping?
Even now, in my 30s, I’m terrified of owning a home (not that I ever will, because of Baby Boomers, negative gearing, avo toast, etc). A house, you see, is the ultimate anchor. The bigger it is, the more stuff you’ll buy to fill it. Then, you’ll be stuck! Marie Kondo would hate a planet full of folks like me, because she’d be unemployed. I don’t need Marie to tell me to get rid of my shit – no single object could possibly spark more joy than what I feel when I dump a bag at the op shop. That’s because almost every three years, like clockwork, I get a little niggle in the pit of my stomach. I call it the three-year itch. Shouldn’t you
be leaving soon? it says. Don’t you have anywhere else you have to go?
By Lisa Marie Corso -
A front door is a portal into someone else’s domestic world. You knock on their door. You ring the doorbell. You press your face up against the security door and call their name through the metal frame, then wait. After the initial alert of your arrival, you’ll hear the faint sound of footsteps gradually stomping closer. It’s the twist of the lock next, before the front door swings open and you’re ushered inside.
I’ve walked through many front doors, but there’s one that remains elusive: the entrance to my parents’ place. We rarely use it. We don’t open it. We don’t close it. It’s just there.
To clarify, my parents will open the front door when greeting guests and strangers. But when my sister and I visit, we enter strictly via the garage. Even when we both lived at home, we entered that way. We’d half-wait for the garage door to roll up before slipping underneath it, Indiana Jones style. We’d shuffle past their car, the recycling bin, metal shelving lined with Italian canned tomatoes, passata and olive oil, and of course, the Italianaustralian family’s pride and joy, the garage fridge, before entering the house through a connective door.
I continue to enter their home the same way, but as my status has changed from tenant to visitor,
I now offer a flimsy gesture of courtesy first by prank-calling my mum or honking my car horn to announce my arrival. I figure it’s better than just letting myself inside without warning. My parents disagree. They hate that I honk when they’ve got a fully functioning doorbell, but I learnt a long time ago that detouring to the front door only to circle back to the garage door is an utter waste of time (or at least, a few seconds’ worth).
I never considered entering my parents’ house via the garage to be anything but normal. Even when friends question why my family never uses the front door, I answer with the most straightforward explanation I can offer: “Because.” I’ve tried to dig a little deeper and unpack my family’s garage door obsession. Truthfully, we were once a household, maybe like yours, who entered through the front door. But I can’t say that was by choice – it was just that our garage at the time didn’t have a secret connective door that led us inside.
And even during that stint when we used the front door for its intended purpose, other family members did not. I remember my nonna and nonno entering their home through the garage portal, as well as Zia, Zio and our cousins. The ease with which they left home for the market or shuffled into the car for school drop-off didn’t go unnoticed. Or when it was a family birthday, and they would disappear into the garage to unearth cans of soft drink and fold-out barbecue chairs for everyone to sip and sit in suburban comfort. The magic and convenience of the garage-to-house door was very, very appealing.
So, when my family eventually moved into a new home and found ourselves with one of our own, we instinctively abandoned the front door altogether. We never discussed it; we just did it. The garage door became our private portal; but more than that, the garage became a room in its own right. One that welcomed everything from our car to our bins, sentimental junk we didn’t want in the house but couldn’t bear to part with, and food for our family in a fridge that hadn’t given up despite being more than 35 years old. And of course, it was a room that embraced a family who refused to use the front door. After all, a front door is for everyone, but there’s something nice about the garage door being just for us.