All happy families, Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, resemble one another. If this is true, then families who share in the kind of happiness we enjoyed on a family trip to Montagu, in the Western Cape, in December 2014, are happy indeed.
Rob and I had flown out from Toronto, Jonnie and Hayley were visiting from the UK, Eve and Shaun had not yet emigrated to Canada, Kath had come down from Johannesburg, my sister Laura from Durban, and my mom had joined the merry tribe from Cape Town. The only one missing was Gareth, Kath’s husband – still completing his medical training and trapped at work, the poor man.
It was the first time in a while that we had all been together, and it was lovely to see one another in the flesh again, to hug and laugh, to make bad jokes, to horse around and have fun. But there was another reason that joy overflowed. Look at the photograph of the gang at lunch on the verandah, and you will see Kath pointing at Hayley, and Jono pointing at her too, and at himself.
Why, you might ask?
Well, I don’t remember the joke, but I’d hazard a guess it had something to do with the fact that Hayley, while still every inch Hayley, was also the brand-new fiancee, and about to become the newest member of the family.
Jonnie had proposed to her, on a boat, in Cape Town harbour. The plan, as I recall, was to wait until they were out at sea in Table Bay, or perhaps floating offshore near Clifton or Camps Bay – everything had been organised, the private reservation, the champagne, the food – but as soon as they got on board Jono simply blurted it out, and burst into tears. Or perhaps it was Hayley who burst into tears, or both of them, or neither – I wasn’t there, and I don’t remember the story exactly. No doubt they do.
Nonetheless, a proposal was made, the offer accepted, and the newly engaged couple joined us for a few effortlessly enjoyable days together, their happiness and excitement bubbling over. It was one of the best times, ever.
We stayed on a farm, outside Montagu, a small country town on Route 62 , with ducks wandering about, and donkeys in a paddock, and the blue mountains, stark and beautiful, between us and the sky. We ate, drank wine, went for walks, took a boat ride down the Breede River, explored the town.
It’s this – this fullness of life, of living – that Covid has denied us this past year, isn’t it? Not just us, as in us the family, but all of us, across the country and around pretty much the whole world, too.
Knowing that this is so – that we are all in the same boat, so to speak, makes it in some ways easier to comprehend, and so to accept, or at least to rationalise. But the rational view, the broad perspective, can’t replace the year that each one of us has lost. The time can’t be reclaimed, the experiences we didn’t have will always be missing in action, and the harsh effects of isolation – the absence of real life conversation, human touch and presence, the voices and gestures of those we love and care for, the loss of connection, the loss of variety and stimulation in our day to day lives – will leave their mark on all of us, one way or another.
We will, though, hopefully, appreciate these things all the more when they are returned to us. This is not a form of compensation, or ‘seeing the bright side’ – what’s lost is lost. But it is precisely why what remains is more precious.