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The miracle app that brought our locked-down family together

The miracle app that brought our locked-down family together

Bridging memories and generations, WhatsApp is the great connector.

"As the fossil of the group, I’ve come to realise that I’m the keeper of the archive, reminding them of their past and relating stories about their shared history."

Bridging memories and generations, WhatsApp is the great connector

WhatsApp and I have never been besties. Yes, I know you can see that I read your message hours ago.

No, I don’t feel obliged to answer it within your imaginary timeframe.

Yet here I am, more than a year later, admin on a group that never fails to make me smile.

Restrictions during that first lockdown last year prompted me to create the group.

I needed a way to keep in touch with kids 1 to 3 while they stayed at their dad’s house, and kid 4 (my niece, who cheerfully inhabits the role of sibling) when she was sent home from her hostel. WhatsApp provided the solution.

“You guys are the only ones who get my sense of humour,” observed kid 4 during a rambling but thoroughly enjoyable group conversation.

It quickly became apparent that the group was a genius move. It became a space where we kicked off our shoes, flopped onto the couch, and enjoyed the company, even if we couldn’t get together physically.

Kid 4 is probably right. For one, there’s a particular flavour to our conversations that you’d only appreciate if you were family.

Emoji-and-sticker imbued as they are, there’s an ease and a rhythm to our chats that feels like home.

But there’s also the fact that kid 4 seems to have been born with an appreciation that in our family, certain things are just funny.

Talking to her is strikingly similar to talking to my late sister. A joke or a snide comment is never far from her lips. In many ways, she’s her mom’s clone.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things that connect us as family, as I’ve started tracing my family history.

I’d dabbled in it a few years ago, but back then, it was a painstaking and time-consuming process of systematically picking my way through online databases and travelling to archives to retrieve hard copy records.

This time around, my research has been facilitated by genealogical websites, some of which include digitised original records, free to download.

Without leaving my couch, I’ve managed to flesh out half-remembered family stories and solve a few mysteries.

A story that isn’t half-remembered – kids 1 to 3 come from a long line of sports-phobics.

My dad hated school sports and went to extreme lengths to avoid them. If you throw something at me, expecting me to catch it, my instinct is to scream and run for cover.

And I’ve yet to meet the person who could keep a straight face when they saw my mom run.

Unsurprisingly, my children haven’t broken the mould, but continued the family tradition of becoming solid ‘D-teamers’. We’re okay with that.

Tales of our family’s sporting fails are guaranteed to get a laugh out of us. They’ve become the stuff of legend and the ultimate in-joke.

My roots and those who are connected to me have always fascinated me: A kinship felt when, as a child, I looked at a picture of my dad’s mom and recognised her.

Something in the curve of the mouth or the shape of the eyes that felt familiar.

It’s one of a handful of images I’ve seen of the Italian-descended, dark-eyed and curly-haired woman, and the photo that reveals where my ‘big’ hair comes from.

Sharing old family photos during our group chats never fails to spark a conversation.

Is there anything more entertaining than collectively teasing a sibling or cousin about the questionable fashion choices of their younger selves?

As the fossil of the group, I’ve come to realise that I’m the keeper of the archive, reminding them of their past and relating stories about their shared history.

It’s the ‘stories’ part of genealogy that draws me to it. The tiniest detail in the archives can bring long-gone family members to life.

One of my favourite stories is a court record that speaks of an airborne object directed by my dad’s mom at my grandfather.

Yes, violence is never the answer, but I have a similar story in my past, the airborne object in my case being a chair.

Not my proudest moment, but discovering that I share a tendency to air my displeasure physically made me feel we had a sisterly bond. You go, granny.

She died long before I was born, but the few things I know about her – chief among these being that my dad adored her – make me wish I’d had the opportunity to get to know her.

I tell myself we’d have liked each other and found plenty to talk about.

Perhaps I owe WhatsApp an apology. As the branches of my family tree grow, and my group chats meander from past to future and inane to profound, it strikes me that I’m lucky to have access to a technology that enables me to get to know my ancestors and my descendants better.

An app that helps me do that can’t be all bad.

Janine Dunlop

Change expert, Janine Dunlop, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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