When I was worried my son was coming down with a little something, I remarked that his eating was slowing down a bit.
‘I’ve noticed how fast you eat,’ my wife’s Auntie Carmel said. She said it with the sympathetic air of a librarian who’s noticed a particularly dull child reading a book upside down. I looked down at my plate – the empty plate from which my helpless food had just been evacuated – and back up at her scientific gaze, swallowing the last of my dinner. ‘I’m not being critical,’ she assured me, ‘I find it fascinating.’ She said ‘fascinating’ the way a polite member of the FBI might describe your recent internet searches.
‘You do eat pretty fast,’ murmured my wife by the time I’d placed my cutlery down. Her mother opined with much the same view shortly after that, until soon the entire table were unanimous in this opinion. I, who had always considered myself their urbane and witty in-law was, it turned out, little more than a wild beast, like a pig or a jackal who’d been shaved and taught rudimentary human speech.
We were at my wife’s parents in Dublin because Auntie Carmel was visiting from New York, and it was a good chance for her to meet our son, who immediately adored her. We all adore Auntie Carmel, not least for her ability to speak her mind in a way that never seems rude, but does seem distinctly un-Irish.
Irish people generally balk at telling people truths about themselves. If you have a piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth you could go about your business all day and no one would ever tell you. It’s probably one of the reasons the Irish are so unconcerned with immigration; we rely on Germans, Spaniards and Poles to cross the street and cheerfully tell us about the crisp packet that’s been in our hair all morning.
In fairness to Carmel, I do eat quickly. I inhale my meals, and in my more lucid moments I’m fond of saying it’s because I came from a large family. I now realise this makes no sense. Our childhood meals were not, I suddenly recalled, lowered through a trap door and into a trough, around which we snapped and snarled at each other like feral dogs.
There is also the fact that my wife’s mum and Auntie Carmel themselves both hail from a family of 12. The same is true, improbably enough, for her dad. Yet somehow, none of them eat as if their legs are on fire. Hell, each of my own 10 brothers and sisters can conduct mealtimes without bringing to mind a city fox plundering a skip.
It’s a trait I picked up along the way, and which I might have been permanently blind to had it not been for this intervention. Left unexamined, it might have coloured my parenting, demanding my speed as a default for my son. He doesn’t need me passing down my weirdest habits, he has enough on his plate. For now, at least, he can clear it as slowly as he likes.
Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats