In our household we are particular about avoiding roles. Four of us live here full time. Besides me, there is my husband Tony and my daughters Hebe and Alice.
People are understandably inclined to read our set-up in terms of familiar conventions. So, for a long time they used to see Alice and Hebe, who are in their mid-thirties, as "still living at home with their parents", and tradesmen working on the fabric of the house would sometimes enquire, "is your mother there" or ask "to speak to the home owner".
In actual fact, legally speaking, though it is the home of all of us by common consent, the house belongs to Alice and Hebe. We pay them rent. (Hey, that rhymes! And scans, sort of.)
Like many twenty-first century tribes, ours were torn apart and what we have now is a patchwork family. Crazy paving. Tony has children and grandchildren from his first marriage, as do I, but we didn't become a couple until he was in his 50s and I in my 40s. So though we are technically a large step-family, my children think of him as "Tony" not as a new father, and the lives of his children and grandchildren do not interweave with mine — though I am interested in them and I like to hear how they're getting on.
Tony and I lived together near Oxford (where he worked) for a while, with different family members coming and going, living with us on and off. Then we came back to Hastings (my long-time home) and set up house with Alice and Hebe — but on the understanding that the household would be made up of four separate and equal individuals.
We cook separately, and shop separately (though Alice and Hebe usually make common cause in cooking and shopping), we pay equal amounts of the household bills, and we make decisions by mutual agreement. If something that costs a big sum of money arises, whoever has the most will usually offer to pay it, or we just wait and save up.
Though we enjoy each other's company, our household does not have the comfortable tacit agreements about relationship that traditional families have. Even though we've been married since 2006, Tony and I still bring very different sets of assumptions and expectations to our daily living, and he is profoundly absorbed in his work as I am in mine. We have never meshed together in the way you do with someone you marry at the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. We love one another dearly, but we view each other from a certain distance, and in our household every single thing has to be negotiated, which takes a considerable amount of emotional energy all the f-ing time. That's the price we pay for choosing the unusual, but for all sorts of reasons we think it's worth it.
We each have our own rooms and this morning, walking back to my room from the bathroom, carrying my own towels (we each have our own set, not a common bathroom set like a normal family) and my large plastic box of toiletries because we keep our own things in our own rooms not in the bathroom, I was reflecting on what this might mean in time to come.
Walking along the passage, I felt conscious of my good balance and sure footing. Old people don't always have that — they become more precarious as their muscles weaken, more inclined to fall. I felt conscious of my hand holding the large plastic box with heavy things in it — I have cream for my legs in it, and a massive pot of coconut oil infused with a variety of essential oils, as well as shampoo and a toothbrush, and the essential oils I use instead of toothpaste and deodorant. I noticed how easy it is for me to hold it. Such a simple thing, carrying something heavy in my hand and walking easily along the passage after my bath.
What will happen if I live to be 85 . . . or 95 . . . ? Who will help me? In traditional families, the roles prepare the individuals to support and care for one another — create an understanding of how to look after each other without the people even realising it. Think, for instance, of how we sometimes say in casual conversation, "I'll be mother" about being the one who pours the tea from the pot into the cups of the people sharing it. Do people know how to be mother if they are used to a basis of simple individual equality? How will they gradually learn the skills of underpinning the weakness of other people if they are used only to being either supported themselves by someone else, or of each person pulling their own weight?
Because my husband is older than me, and I take care of my health and come from a constitutionally strong family, it seems likely that he will pass through frailty and death before I do, as my previous husband did. My expectation is that I will be the one who sees him through. And then what?
My father left my mother to live on his own after 49 years of marriage, though this was not so deep a rending as it sounds because he'd spent his entire adult life roaming around the globe away from home, and was always only loosely connected to absolutely everybody. They still holidayed together after he moved out, and went to coffee shops and exhibitions together, and talked on the phone every day. He just didn't live with her. She gave him the dog so he wouldn't be lonely. And he died alone in his cottage, quickly and simply, without warning. How extremely helpful and convenient, for him and for us. When I found his body it was neatly dressed and lying on his bed. He'd left his front door propped ajar, so maybe he had an inkling.
And if I could have my druthers, as my friend Julie says, that's what I'd choose for myself, whether it be tomorrow or in twenty or thirty years time — fast and uncomplicated.
My mother has also chosen disconnection — dismantling the power of attorney we'd set up for me to look after her, insisting on living alone even though she can no longer remember anything and moves in and out of a dream world and is entirely housebound. She has a carer, but no plan exactly. She's just hoping it will all somehow go away. Improvisation R us. I get intensely anxious about her. It's like watching a clown with an umbrella and a string of floating balloons and an improbable jaunty feather in his hat walking across a tightrope over Niagara Falls ("good luck, good luck, good luck, dearest — please make it over in one piece").
We live in strange times, do we not? We wander in unfamiliar territory, and have to make life up as we go along, without the structures and guidelines of the ties and conventions that wove the safety nets and supportive hammocks, of traditional society. It's exhilarating, I suppose, but it is very demanding as well. It allows us to make the best of our losses and partings, but it's tiring too. Sometimes I do deeply miss having the old unquestioned ways of belonging to rest in. You knew who you were. You didn't have to invent it every passing day. In what I know, in how I relate — even in the nitty-gritty detail of how I eat, drifting further and further out to sea, away from the comfortable rhythms of familiarity that once upheld my life; accepting impermanence. Living is a process of ever deepening loneliness. Beloved Rumer puts the feeling of it well.