There's a big cherry tree outside my kitchen window here in Germany, and when the cherry blossoms appear, I know we're finally heading for summer. In Ireland, May and June were fabulous months, brimming with events. See, if you grew up in Catholic Ireland, May and June were bursting at the seams with all kinds of reasons for parties: communions. Confirmations. Weddings. The odd christening or two. And if you came from a big family, like I do, these were not just special occasions, they were - wait for it -
- drum roll -
It usually started with a telephone call. One of my aunts (never my uncles - but we'll get to that later) would phone to announce The Occasion so that we would save the date. My mother would normally take the call (if my father happened to be passing the instrument when it rang, he'd pick it up, but naturally pass it to my mother straight away. If he didn't, someone might inveigle him into making, ugh, small talk.) With a child or three hanging out of her legs, my mother would try to hold a conversation with a sister or sister-in-law. What we managed to hear as we were swinging out of her limbs usually went along these lines:
Aunt:"So it's just a little get-together for Ciara's communion. Nothing fancy, now."
Mother: "Well, we'll have to make a little fuss of her on her big day."
Aunt: "Yes, but really: no fuss, now. No need for everyone to get all dressed up."
Mother: "And what should I bring?"
Aunt: "Hmmm. We don't really need anything..."
Mother: "Oh, come on! I have to bring something!"
Aunt: "Maybe you could make a bit of potato salad? Just a bit, though. There'll be loads of food."
Now, in case you don't come from a large family (and it doesn't even have to be an Irish one, because I know for a fact that this is how it works in Italian, Polish and Nigerian families as well, probably in other cultures, too, but my research has been limited), let me just tell you one thing: with the exception of the statement that there will be loads of food, everything else in this exchange is lies. Pure lies. It will be fancy (even as my mother is hanging up the phone, the Host Auntie is probably shrieking at her offspring to go and count the Good Tablecloths NOW and if one of her little perishers has left a mark on them with felt-tip pen, there will be HELL to pay), people will be dressed up (and my mother at this point is usually torn between fretting about her potato salad and how she will make nine kids presentable before Saturday) and yes, you DO need to bring something. You can't arrive with your hands swinging, God forbid.
Because the worst thing - take a minute to brace yourself - the very worst thing that could happen at one of these Occasions is that you might run out of food. I don't think it has every actually happened in Ireland, except perhaps during the Great Famine of 1845-1847, but there is a morbid fear that a guest might leave your home feeling, say, peckish. Or that a guest might want something like, for example, a piece of apple pie but you only have rhubarb, blackberry, peach or raspberry. Or (and any self-respecting Irish materfamilias will get the heebie-jeebies at the mere thought) someone might say, "Gosh, I was at so-and-so's house and they were fierce mean with the food."
Perish the thought.
If someone rings you the day after your party and reveals that they spent the night on the floor in the throes of gluttony-induced indigestion, you can rest assured that your party was a success.
So fast-forward a few days: the potato salad is finished. Sure, it only took a full day and an entire workforce comprised of your plentiful children, but a vessel deemed sufficiently big (a bucket or a baby bath or a trough) is now filled with the kind of potato salad you'd never be bothered dishing up to your own family - Posh Potato Salad, the kind that has salt AND pepper and is garnished with parsley. Parsley! Oh, the fanciness of it! The night before the big event, children are bathed and clothes laid out. Sometimes they even match. Socks are clean, shoes are polished, hairs are washed. After all, no one wants to turn up with a shower of ragamuffins, do they? No, we are told, they do not. This is what we hear repeatedly as my hair-brush wielding mother batters our scalps while simultaneously separating squabbling toddlers with her foot. We don't really mind, because we all know that Occasions like this mean two things: unparalleled access to sweeties and dozens and dozens of cousins.
Ah, the cousins.
I have over seventy first cousins. (Yes, you may read that again if you wish.) We keep adding them up but someone is always left out, so we're not sure about the exact number. I think it's 74 - but, honestly, I've lost track. Clearly, getting all of us together in the one place is nigh-on impossible, but family occasions like these always provided us with an opportunity to re-connect. We'd arrive in our best threads, hang around our parents shyly for a couple of minutes, then take off down the garden to join the army of little children engaged in a high-octane information exchange: who's who, who knows what dangerous stuff can be done, who knows the most naughty words. Within minutes the children turn feral, whooping and shrieking, scaling walls and trees and crawling into places far too small or dangerous for little people. There are always calamities, a yowling child makes his/her way down the garden at regular intervals: pushed, knocked down, fell over, tripped up or over.
Adding to the injury was the insult of not being able to find your mother: you'd have to look hard in the pack of similar-looking women, trying to locate your Ma (hint: usually the one ignoring you). As a family, we tend to re-use and recycle many of the same names, particularly the boys' names, so there are about 23 Johns and 15 Michaels. When a wailing child enters the kitchen, the grown-ups often have to establish whose it is: Baby John? Small John? Big John? Curly John? Red John? Blond John?
"Is that mine or yours?" someone might say, trying to identify the child from the pitch of its howl.
"Mine," comes the grim answer and someone places a snotty child in its mother's arms. After a garbled rendition of the Story of Woe, which always involves immense wrong-doing and paints the injured party in a near-martyr-like light, the mother would have to wipe the child's face, then administer a restorative cookie or bag of gummi bears, before marching down the path to make loud threatening noises at an empty garden. When children hear the heavy tread of a mother on the warpath, they have the ability to melt away into the trees and disappear, but the mother can't lose face, so she shakes a fist at a bunch of bushes and threatens blue murder. As soon as she goes stomping back into the house, the children reappear from behind trees and under bushes and the games continue as though nothing ever happened.
THE AUNTIES & THEIR LOVE OF THE KITCHEN
While the children are forming alliances and planning all kinds of derring-do, the Aunties have now all gathered in the kitchen. They are, in fact, in their Best Clothes, but that doesn't stop them from jostling to get at the sink, where one (usually my Aunt Dell) will wash up the constant stream of dirty dishes, two will dry up and seven stand around and supply a constant stream of "news" (gossip). It's only a matter of time before the very small kitchen becomes jam-packed with bodies: at some point everyone realises that the best conversations are happening there, so the living room (where the table is decked out in a Good Tablecloth free of felt-tip pen) is left to the elderly and those who don't have the stomach (and strong elbows) to wedge themselves into the melee in the kitchen.
THE UNCLES & THEIR EEJITRY
Some of the fathers might be trying to get in on the fun, but most of them will have found a place to gather in the garden where they can talk and smoke in peace, oblivious to the antics of the children (who, at this stage, could be assembling homemade fireworks, making a sleigh for the family dog to pull or teaching the toddlers how to drive a car). This is an odd aspect of Irish society that I think was possibly Ireland's version of feminism in the 1980s: The Eejitry of Men. It was a commonly-held belief that all men are bumbling oafs - God only knows what they would get up to if it weren't for their wives. Leave them to their own devices and you'd have a Neanderthal in a matter of days.
And back then, it simply wasn't The Done Thing to praise your husband or even compliment him in his absence, much less his presence (ugh - get a room!), in fact you were expected to be a martyr to his Eejitry. You could try to outdo the other women with tales of your husband's Eejitry, e.g.
"My lad is a terrible eejit. There he was this morning, putting Michael's shoes on John - what's he like? Michael's shoes are black, not blue!!"
(Lots of sympathetic tsk-tsking. Of course Michael's shoes are black, not blue! The eejit!)
Then someone might be moved to be fair, to acknowledge the fact that their husband wasn't utterly useless:
"In fairness, though, he did brush the kids' hair this morning."
And the other Aunties might nod begrudgingly, using the opportunity to heap scorn on their own spouses, ("Well, my fella wouldn't know which end of the brush was up!")
God forbid you might agree - even accidentally - with someone's condemnation of their other half. Imagine if someone was mid-rant at the Eejitry of their husband and someone else nodded absent-mindedly in a way that might suggest that they agreed!!! The cheek! Because it's all very well to bemoan your own husband's Eejitry, but you are honour-bound to assure your sisters and sisters-in-law that their specimen is, in fact, a gem among men. An unconcentrated nod at the wrong time during a narrative might put someone's nose out of joint.
NOSES OUT OF JOINT
It can't be avoided. So many past grudges, unspoken insults, minor tiffs and veiled insults will culminate and fester. Add to this the vast amounts of sugar consumed (because while there is a sensible amount of salad and cold cuts on offer, we're really about the desserts. Tables are groaning under the weight of cakes and tarts and pies and buns - and they have to be eaten, we are told, because they will only go off and have to be thrown out. Which is almost as bad as having not enough food, but only just) and you have a recipe for disaster. Someone on a sugar high might take offence at - well, anything really. Eyebrows would be raised. Noses would be sniffed. Chins would be jutted. No one would actually say anything because you wouldn't want to make a fuss, would you? Instead you could just take your grudge home, wrapped tightly like your leftovers, ready to be re-heated the next day.
AND SO IT ENDS
The first people start to leave and parents go out into the garden to gather up their kiddies. At this point, I seem to remember it taking on a kind of Lord of the Flies aura: children in rags, with berry-based warpaint smeared across their faces, armed with spears and sticks. Then again, memory might be tricking me, but I think that's kind of the direction it took. Mothers and fathers would have to dip into a mass of children and extract the one closest in age to their own and hope they'd get lucky - if not, keep trying till you'd collar your offspring. Then you actually had to say your goodbyes and gather the entire family as well as the entire family's coats, handbags, shoes (they often got discarded along the way), and sundry random items of clothing such as jumpers or socks that were tossed somewhere mid-afternoon. So you could easily factor in another hour - and if you were smart, you'd wait till your mother was caught up in another conversation and slip away gleefully down the garden till she came back for you herself or sent some sibling lackey to do her dirty work.
Once home, we'd be tossed into our pyjamas. The smaller ones would already be fast asleep, exhausted and overwrought. My parents would send us to bed, hoping for an easy night but would end up in and out to our bedrooms, soothing tummy aches or nightmares, escorting children to the bathroom to wee or throw up the seven pounds of crisps and licorice they managed to scoff over the course of the day.
And that was it. The next day my mother would throw out all of the leftovers that had been assiduously wrapped and given to us to take home, because she has a terrible fear of food going bad. She'd sniff something once, twice, then say,
"It's gone bad on me!" as though the cream cakes had ganged together to form a rebellion and oust her. And we'd have to gather at the fence of the chicken run to watch the hens tucking into the remains of our Aunt Reiltín's lovely sponge cake (-> this is a bit of an exaggeration but, really, those chickens are spoiled, they really are.)
"Never again!" my father would declare. "Enough of that now, for a while!"
The eejit. Sure, only a week later there'd be someone's christening and we'd have to do the whole thing over again.