In the beginning there was a mid-20th-century nuclear family living in a small English town: Father, Mother, Sister, and Brother. Brother was the younger of the kids by two years. There was also a much older half-brother, issue of Father but not of Mother — a “bye-blow” in the frank dialect of the ancestral district; the result of a youthful mistake, said Father in later years. Half-Brother joined the army when Brother was three, and was seen only at long intervals thereafter.
In one of the earliest of those intervals Half-Brother married. He soon had two sons, the older named after Father. Brother was much amused to find himself an uncle, or half-uncle, at age nine. He picked up the word “avuncular” from one of Richmal Crompton’s books, and studied to acquire the avuncular manner, with, according to later reports from counterparties, no perceptible success. Half-Brother disappeared back into overseas postings in an empire over which the sun had begun to set.
Years passed. Sister married and brought forth a daughter, which she named after Mother. She then divorced, remarried, and gave birth to a son.
In time Brother himself married and established his own family, though in a distant country. His half-nephews had by this point acquired wives and children themselves: three girls, two boys. Now Sister’s daughter wed, and added a girl and three more boys to the roster. Her own half-brother, Sister’s son, had a son of his own out of wedlock. Following the example of his grandfather (and of at least one President of the United States), he took proper responsibility, helping to raise and support the child.
Father and Mother are no longer with us, but that original nucleus of four and a half has now expanded to encompass nearly thirty persons, if you include spouses and — how to avoid the wretched word? — “partners.” There has been some geographical scattering, and some estrangements, but a solid half of us are included in the party here at a hotel in the English midlands to see Sister’s boy, my sister’s boy, wed at last. The bride is not his child’s mother, although relations there are cordial. A correct delicacy kept her from attending this ceremony, but the little lad himself is among us, a serious-looking four-year-old in a smart suit and tie.
The local registrar marries the couple in a large softly-lit room hung all about with drapes, rows of chairs set out facing her desk and a small lectern. Some gently hortatory speeches are made. Vows are exchanged. Rings are given and placed. Everything is secular, there being little religion in this family, as there is very little in England any more, outside the gaudy mosques that disfigure old industrial cities. I nurse a fondness for the traditional style of English hypocrisy, according to which religious indifference was no bar to one’s having a church wedding, unless the vicar was of the annoyingly pious type; and so I nurse a corresponding slight resentment at not having the opportunity to sing one of the dear old hymns. The world today has a different logic, though, perhaps a better one, and I am only a straggler. Let the youngsters do things in their own way.
After the ceremony we gather for dinner. The thing that we came for having been accomplished, everyone relaxes. The hotel wedding package includes rooms for many family members, so that designated drivers are few. Alcohol warms and softens everything. The deep native sentimentality of the English emerges, giving the dinner speeches a maudlin sheen. Declarations of adult affection flow freely, with many regrets at having for so long neglected to visit, write, phone, email. The little ones, now relieving their boredom by playing raucous, high-velocity tag around the dining hall, are cooed over, when they can be caught and held for long enough. There is a round of applause for the uncle who has traveled all the way from New York to attend.
The emotions generated by an event like this have a fundamental, irreducible quality to them. What do we live for, but to witness and participate in all this joyful uniting and proliferating? What can compare with family as a source of satisfaction, personal or vicarious? Where do so many people meet in mutual affection and interest, with so many shared memories, but at a family event?
Second thoughts intrude. Mr. Fukuyama is surely right to tell us that where the “radius of trust” extends no further than the family, a society is crippled. Family is the Mob; family is the Borgias; Family is the title of Ba Jin’s 1931 novel exposing the suffocating autocracy of the traditional Chinese multigenerational household; family is every Third World despot looting his nation’s public fisc — and not infrequently ours, too — to support battalions of relatives. In our civilization, the Anglo-Saxon civilization, we care for our families, but not too much. This works well, much better than any other arrangement, for both the individual and the larger society.
I am staying with my half-brother in a distant town, so we take our leave early to drive back: he, his older son named for my father, and I. I take a last fond look at the bride and groom, flushed now with dinner wine, celebrity, and happiness. May their happiness endure! I can’t sincerely call on God to bless them, having lost my faith — having in fact lost what interest I ever had in abstractions and grand systems either intellectual, political, or spiritual. Theory is gray, says Goethe’s Mephistopheles, but green is the tree of life. So it is, so indeed it is; and here it is, the tree of life, thriving and branching, multiplying and spreading, laughing and celebrating and gushing and playing tag — re nao, as the Chinese say in happy approbation of gatherings like this one: “hot and noisy.”
Congratulations, Marcus and Nicola. Care for each other; help each other; speak the truth to each other. This world’s a darkling plain, no doubt; but if you stick close together and share the burdens, chances are you’ll make it to the other side, and be privileged to watch as seeds planted in bare earth grow into gardens of joy, as playmates become parents and uncles and great-uncles, as four and a half becomes thirty. Green, green is the everlasting tree of life.