Two of my step-daughters, both middle-aged, have not spoken to each other for several years. The cause of the rift was a misunderstanding over someone's Christmas present. There are 2 miles and an abyss of self-indulgent misery between them.
The broken family is not a new phenomenon, of course. My mother was not my father's first wife, and I was not his first child: in South Africa I have a seventy year old sister. This is not recent or surprising news since I was told about her when quite young. But for years she was just a never-ageing child in a photograph, and she had no significance in my life.
Following my father's death in 1995 she visited this country and met our brother. Why didn't I go to meet her as well? I can't remember now – she was still this kind of “invented” person to me, I suppose – someone who'd had no influence on me, and for whom I had no curiosity, let alone sisterly feelings. Nevertheless my brother saw to it that addresses were exchanged, and every Christmas since then we have sent each other seasonal greetings. This Christmas she added a phone number and an email address. Why? Perhaps it was because she had reached the landmark age of 70, and had wanted to reach out to me one more time. I emailed her an image of my family at a recent wedding. She responded with a fictitious “newspaper” concocted for her by her husband to mark that landmark birthday.
So now I know more about this sister – her schooldays, her marriage, her interests – but not the real woman. I will no doubt exchange more messages and information. But I'm not sure that I'll ever be moved to physically mend this particular break in our family – and there have been many other breaks. I feel separated from her existence by more than miles. And perhaps I am a little afraid that, if we finally met face to face and did not take to each other, we would both experience just another emotional wound from our absent and absentee father.