San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Watch your language!

I married late, which is fairly traditional in Ireland, on both sides of the border. Then we took our time starting a family, both of us being disinclined to take risks – but you must judge for yourself what effect this may have had on subsequent events.

Our first was a boy, of normal size and appearance, who, although we made every possible mistake – this being in pre-Spock days – turned out solidly normal. Which encouraged us to try again, and this time it was a girl, but dangerously premature, tiny, tiny, taking forever to catch up to normal weight.

When she was strong enough to be taken to church, we christened her Deirdre, which we pronounce Deardra, with a final “a.” Most anyone in Ireland, hearing that name, will respond, “Ah yes! Deirdre of the Sorrows!” But it’s a family custom, and we felt bound by it.

Deirdre was very late starting to speak, and her first word wasn’t the usual “mama” or “baba” conditioned by the feeding bottle, but a perfectly distinct “No!” whenever we tried to lift her from her cot. As her vocabulary improved, she developed a certain purposeful jut of the jaw as she ruthlessly disciplined her unfortunate rag doll Rose. The “No!” quickly developed into “Don’t!” when we tried to rescue Rose, and later into “Don’t touch me!” as she began to master verbs. Furthermore, her typical facial expression was a disagreeable scowl, which only dissolved into a grudging smile when her demands were met.

We began to fear for her future, as her continuing development began to take the shape of my notorious Aunt Kathleen, a legend in my family for antisocial behavior, such that anyone displaying selfish or inconsiderate conduct immediately attracted yells of “Auntie Kitty!” from everyone else in the room.

Both sides of the family have more than their fair share of confirmed spinsters, of whom Aunt Kathleen is only the worst, and there is something discouraging in rearing a child who seems to have no prospect of ever finding a mate.

Eventually, a perceptive neighbor pointed out that a babe learns literally everything from its parents, so that we should direct any criticism toward ourselves rather than our child. So, swallowing the bitter pill of remorse, we thenceforth suppressed all negative conversation within Deirdre’s hearing. But it was too late; the mold had set, the basic character had been established, and we found ourselves rearing a worthy successor to Aunt Kathleen.

I will not weary you with our frantic efforts to repair the damage, because they all failed miserably. But at least we had learned our lesson, and raised two more of the sweetest darlings imaginable. Meanwhile, Deirdre grew increasingly bitter, friendless and unapproachable, until on her 20th birthday she entered the Sacred Heart convent near Inchiquin. We haven’t heard from her since then.

The moral of this story is: Watch your language! The ears of a tiny baby are more sensitive than any microphone.

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