My family and other animals

15 Apr

My parents' new puppy. I got a new aunt.

I’ve just been on a ‘poo drop.’ In the Irish countryside, people don’t tend to package up their dogs’ poo – their animals simply find a hedgerow off the beaten track and do their business there. The shit I just deposited into a nearby bin was that of my baby, and it’s something I’ve become accustomed to out here.

This daily ritual is not something I relish, like the opening of a bottle of wine at 6pm, or kissing the last child ‘goodnight’, yet I am required to do every time I visit my parents’ house. It’s one of the reasons I’m not having any more babies. Once, I was on the plane home to the UK and mid-flight realised the stench that I thought was coming from the man in the neighbouring seat was in fact a very ripe nappy that I’d been carrying around in my handbag for a couple of days. Unlike the discovery of a forgotten chocolate bar, it was not a welcome find.

My mother does not like shit to fester, and as rubbish in her neck of the woods is not collected by large trucks, but rather has to be  loaded into the back of her car every few weeks and taken to the dump, she tries to keep her landfill to a minimum. Leftover food is fed to the chickens, fruit and vegetables are composted and all the recyclables crushed and taken to the recycling plant. The nappies don’t fit into any of these categories, and so they end up in the public bins.

Anyone who visits my parents with babies has got the poo/shit/turd drop down to a fine art: the nappy is to be wrapped in a non-marked bag because my mother is worried it will be traced back to her house by somebody that inspects bins and knows she comes to the UK and shops in Waitrose, which does not exist in Ireland. This whole performance, when written down, just seems plain weird, but it’s as normal as drinking tea in this house. Lives, and the habits that have grown over years, decades and whole generations can often seem strange when they are other people’s. When they are your own and your family’s, not so.

The familiar is what has made this whole holiday so enjoyable. Even when my children gave their cousin nits last week, which then prompted a mass extermination session in the bath (the nits, not the kids) we all manage to get on without having to try. Everyone knows my middle child can be a pain in the arse about eating anything other than fish fingers and chips; my whole family are well versed on ways to deal with my daughter’s foul language; the baby is an accident prone fatty boom boom, and he shrieks a lot, but at least I don’t have to apologise every-time he tries to rub a tasty mixture of snot and porridge into somebody else’s hair. My sister, our husbands, our kids and our parents: we know each other well.

This comfortable state of familiarity was temporarily threatened, when on Friday evening, my father’s sister came to stay. I wanted to apologise to her as soon as she arrived, for mine and my children’s unruly behaviour. I can become a screaming haridan and sometimes demand immediate answers from a baby that cannot talk: “WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN THE SODDING CALPOL?”  – but I waited to see if she could tolerate the chaos. And she did. Royally in fact. Our family don’t faze her at all. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she chops down 20ft trees for a living and lives in New England, where there are bears.

Not only had my sister and I not even met our new, old aunt before last Friday – we didn’t even know of her existence. Our family’s pretty big, and although it’s hard to know how to fit more into a busy life, there’s got to be room enough for new and late additions.

Less than 48 hrs after she set foot in the house, she is very much part of the family. My father seems to be really enjoying the company of a sister that, before now, he didn’t know at all. At breakfast this morning, she was playing with the children, who often act like badly behaved zoo animals at feeding time. They sometimes leave the table without me noticing, in search of chocolate. I only notice when it’s too late and someone says “The baby’s got a cut on his face”. It’s nearly always a bit of melted Kit-Kat on his cheek, the glossiness resembling fresh blood in the right light.

In the midst of all of this, my aunt behaved like one of us, and even wore one of the many ‘house’ dressing gowns that is the Sunday dress-code pre midday. It’s almost obligatory to dress for the occasion here (cold, windy, often raining) by wearing clothes found in the house. Most are not very attractive, but they are all warm (large, thick knit cashmere jumpers in menstrual or duck shit colours). My sister and I often take pictures of each other wearing the kind of cardigans that Val Doonican coveted. Spring is cold here and last week we threw off our flimsy tops, in favour of a cosy Doonican.

We are all learning of branches of our family that we never knew existed. Although she shares a father with my father, our aunt never remembers meeting him because he left when she was two, never to return again. What she discovered in adulthood was that he had in fact gone on to meet another woman after walking out on his first family (her mother, herself and her two siblings). My father’s mother was the next in a line of many women he impregnated a few times, then left. There was a definite pattern to his behaviour.

My sister and I are trying to conjure up what little we remember of Leo (we never called him Grandpa) before he died nearly a decade ago. My memories are limited: he used to produce a defunct Parker pen from the inside pocket of his jacket every Christmas – the only time we saw him – and then smile triumphantly at me, as if to say “I saw it and thought of you.” He smelt of whisky. He spoke with an Austrian accent, and wore very stained trousers. After he ate he always fell asleep. He had scabs on his face that he used to pick and they’d bleed.

From the few photographs I’ve seen of Leo as a young man, he was once very handsome. Everything else I know about him is taken from what my parents have told me, because he didn’t talk much. A misogynist, a womaniser, a philanderer, a boozer, and a liar. A skilled mechanic and a fine driver. These are just some of the things I’ve heard over and over. In his fifties, he suffered a brain injury from a car accident and was never the same again. By most accounts, he wasn’t a very nice man, or, as my mother so succinctly puts it, “He was a fucking bastard.” But he produced lots of children and many good things have come from his existence.

A few years ago I started to believe that I would only deal with the familiar; that I didn’t want or need anybody else in my life; that I had met all the people I could fit into my small world. I was going through a bit of miserable patch, and probably felt that the idea of limiting my social and family circle was a clever way of managing my life. But now, every time I meet somebody that I really like, I realise that I can always budge up and make some room.

When I board the plane back home in a couple of days – hopefully shit-bag-less– I’ll be a few pounds heavier (cake is a three times a day event here) and an aunt richer.


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