Johnjo Phelan and Annie Hayes on their wedding day in 1936.
This is the latest installment in Tom Phelan’s series about growing up in a farming family in Mountmellick, Co. Laois, in the 1940s and ’50.
Dad, with his all-devouring work ethic, was a large presence in my young life. Mam was the sheltering harbor from the storms that sometimes raged in Dad’s head and spewed out in loud and angry words.
But Mam never became the object of Dad’s anger. He loved and respected her. Although I never heard either of my parents express words of affection to each other, Dad showed his love for Mam in many small and silent ways. Later in life I came to understand that his attentiveness to her was love writ shyly.
Dad was always taking care of Mam. Before going to the fields, he renewed the freshwater bucket in the kitchen and filled the turf box. He washed the potatoes for the midday meal; he picked cabbage from the garden and cleaned it; he cut pieces off the preserved side of bacon. He did all the farmyard chores, including churning the milk, and when we children grew big, he delegated those jobs to us. On Saturday nights he was half the team that washed and scrubbed the bodies of the children and inspected their hair for living creatures.
Besides rearing turkeys for the Christmas market, Mam did farmwork only in an emergency. Even though she had milked the family cow when she was a child in Derrycloney, Dad did not allow her to do this; in his mind a milking woman was married to a lazy and thoughtless man.
Every morning Mam prepared breakfast for the family, as well as for whoever had come to work for Dad. When the men were toiling in the fields, she brought tea to them at eleven and four, along with slices of her homemade currant cake. If the farmwork was being rushed to keep ahead of looming rain, at one o’clock Mam carried entire dinners of bacon, cabbage, spuds, tea, and cake, out to the men. Then at six she fed all the workers, in the kitchen, before they headed home. On threshing days, with neighborly assistance, she cooked for a couple of dozen.
I don’t remember Mam ever sitting at the table with us while we ate, not even on Christmas Day. When everyone else’s needs were tended to, she sat at the fire with her plate in her lap. Perhaps this made it easier to serve any childish needs that cropped up at the table; perhaps her family had not eaten together when she was growing up in Derrycloney; or perhaps she was taking a break from us children. As a result Dad was the one who instructed us in basic table manners. But his lessons were not motivated by his concern for our future dining behavior –he was teaching us the safe use of eating utensils.
“Don’t ever put your knife in your mouth; if you do, you might cut off your lips. Or your tongue.”
“Don’t point at anyone with a knife or fork; you might poke their eye out.”
Dad’s lifelong closeness to the earth and animals had inured him to things the average person would balk at. He inserted his hand and arm into cows to move misaligned calves onto the proper track for birthing; he handled afterbirth; he broke newborn pigs’ milk teeth with pliers; he squashed flocks of cabbage-eating green caterpillars between his fingers; he paunched, skinned, and otherwise prepared rabbits for the dinner pot; he burned the incipient horns off young calves with a stick of caustic soda; he held turkeys and chickens between his thighs, bent up their necks, and cut their throats; he stuck his forefinger and thumb into the nostrils of cattle to immobilize them; he whacked aging hens on the back of their heads with a knobby stick to put them out of their misery; he castrated young bulls and pigs; he once castrated a young stallion with a cutthroat razor; he lopped the tails off pups; he crawled along drills to thin out sugar beet seedlings and endured every kind of slimy creepy-crawly with his bare hands; he taught us how to impale wiggling worms on barbarous fishhooks.
Yet when it came to eating, Dad was easily put off by the sight of anything that reminded him of the farmyard. Runny eggs were never served in his presence–the flowing yolk looked too much like something Too Disgusting To Mention (TDTM); macaroni was also reminiscent of something TDTM; the smell of onions, raw or cooked, was that of horse farts. Slurping at the table was forbidden, not just because it was impolite, but because it reminded Dad of a hairy-faced sow, jaw-deep in its slop; a child’s open, food-filled mouth was like the rear of a cow at a moment TDTM; loud chewing noises were rats gnawing turnips; food around the mouth was that hairy-faced sow again; banging plates with a knife or fork was Peetie Connors in his forge that stunk of anthracite and equine emanations.
Dad’s own table manners were those of a country person who had never been burdened with the multiple choices presented at a formal dining table. One knife, one fork, and one spoon were sufficient unto whatever was served. At the kitchen table, whenever he was poured a cup of tea, he sugared it, milked it, stirred it, and poured a third of it into his saucer. Then he picked up the saucer with one hand and drank. When the saucer was empty, he put it back on the table, placed his cup on it, and drank the rest of his tea from the cup. When we children asked him why he did this, he meowed.
In the days following Christmas, Mam served turkey at dinnertime until the bird’s bones were bare. But because Dad could not tolerate waste, the carcass was put on his plate for one last picking. As I silently recited grace, my eyes were drawn to the remains of the turkey, which looked like the ribs of a rotten ship floating in a tiny lake.
Dad raised the skeleton to his mouth and tore off small pieces of flesh. He poked in bony corners with his two-pronged, buck-handled knife. Many times his face was completely hidden by the ribs as he hunted for more evasive morsels; he sucked at them until he caught them between his teeth. He held the rear end of the skeleton to his eye and peeped out through the hole at the other end where the neck had once been anchored. He was a sailor on the deck of a ship looking through a glass. As he pointed the telescope from child to child, he said, ‘Whale ahoy! And I see a yack on the horizon.’
My brothers and I laughed and begged, ‘Do it again!’
But my sister said, ‘It’s a yacht! Not a yack!’ in a tone to show she was not amused.
Next, with crackings and snappings, Dad broke the ribs off the backbone. He examined each bone, and if bearing any prize, subjected it to sucking lips and reaching teeth. A few times he pretended to play the mouth organ on a bone, humming and acting out a tremolo with his right hand, while peeping through his eyelashes at us children. Around his plate, the cleaned bones piled up until there was nothing left in his hands but the notched backbone. This piece took a long time to be rendered meatless, as every nook and cranny was explored with fingers, fork, and tongue. When it finally found its place on the pile of debris, Dad said to my sister, ‘I’m finished. You can put the turkey back together now.’ We all laughed, except Dad. I never once heard him give a loud or hearty laugh.
Mam removed the ossory and threw it in the fire. Dad asked, ‘Tom, what’s that saying about the crows and food?’
‘If you throw food away, you’ll follow the crows for it over the mountain.’
‘All those scraps of meat came from Mam’s hard work with the turkeys all year. Never waste your mother’s labor.’
As the acrid smell of the burning bones filled the kitchen, Mam gave Dad a rag and he wiped the grease off his face.
Every day, Dad organized the cleaning up after dinner, with himself doing the washing. We children dried the dishes, put them away, and swept the concrete floor. As we worked, Mam sat at the fire reading the death notices on the front page of the Irish Independent or about the royal family in the Woman’s Weekly. Another little act of love by Dad.
© 2017 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd. For more about Tom Phelan and his books, go to www.tomphelan.net.