What kind of feelings go through your mind when you are about to meet a member of the family for the first time? No, this is not a new-born, and no, it’s not a new spouse. And no, it’s not someone you have never known about. It’s a case of estrangement, lasting for more than thirty years. Not a case of neglectful estrangement. Rather a case of involuntary estrangement.
I was travelling down from Dresden (see post operatic church) to the Czech Republic to meet a nephew, Ivo, whom I had never seen. With a degree of apprehension, curiosity, excitement, pleasure, anxiety – all this and more. How would I be perceived, received, welcomed? What images did each of us have of each other? What would be true, what would be false? How would we correct our mental images?
I was on my way, I phoned saying I expected to be there in about half an hour or so. “Ah, you’re already in Prague?” No, I was heading to the only address I had – in a small town east of Prague. “Oh, we moved to Prague six years ago.” Ah, you hadn’t mentioned that. That matched my preconceptions: incomplete information. But was that due to a language problem, I thought.
Ivo is the son of my late wife’s brother. His father’s marriage to a Czech woman had broken up in acrimonious circumstances, only a few years after Ivo was born, circumstances which I have never really known. His father began a descent into neglect and alcoholism, eventually returning to the family home in Slovakia, and dying not many years later. Although I had many conversations with my brother-in-law, they were always about ordinary everyday matters – never did he speak about his married life or his son. He did, however, carry a photo of his two-year-old son, always. The hurt was too great to talk about. The photo was with him when he died, but what happened to it since, I’ve no idea.
Contact between the two families declined from sporadic to zero. Presents from the Slovak grandparents were returned unopened. And that’s how matters remained for years.
Suddenly, a dozen years ago, we got a phone call. “Hallo, this is Ivo speaking.” And he spoke to my wife Eva. Every couple of years we would receive a phone call, yet the information seemed different each time. We found it difficult to follow what he was doing. Despite all her apprehensions, despite her seriously declining health, I know Eva would have loved to have seen Ivo before she died. It was not to be.
But now at last, as one of the last representatives of the Slovak family (by marriage), I was going to re-establish the link with Ivo. We had talked several times on the phone, in a mix of Slovak, Czech and English, and corresponded via e-mail. I knew of his partner Olga and their two children. I had even seen photos. Hence the feelings of excitement and pleasure.And so we met – in a vast shopping complex on the outskirts of Prague. Ivo and Olga turned out to be the most delightful couple you could wish to meet. They welcomed me most warmly into their home, and later we wandered around the sights of the city, enjoying a succulent meal together when I just had to eat what I’d been waiting for, a superb ‘vepřo knedlo zelo’, that most Czech of dishes.
Ivo was most interested in everything I could tell him about his Slovak family. He had only a single photo of his father – I promised to send more. He had visited his grandmother years ago, but the encounter was unsavoury. We agreed on one thing for sure: his grandmother was the most difficult person he or I had ever met. She was unfathomable and unpredictable, prone to irrationality and anger, and no-one who knew her ever unearthed a key to explaining or understanding her character. Yet perhaps here was a clue at least in part to the estrangement?
For Ivo, I represented a reuniting with part of his roots – by proxy almost. He doesn’t have anyone else to play this role. I can’t tell him all he would like to know – and those who could have are now nearly all dead. For me, it was wonderful to link up with the Czech part of the family. The link will develop. One day they will get the chance to visit me.
And next? Linking up with the Italian part of the family? Another year.