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Family life: the highs and lows

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David Diebold.

David Diebold.

David Diebold.

WE decamp to my wife's family home across the city, six of us, dog, whatever luggage we can fit into the car and a huge lunchbox of leftover Christmas turkey that skitters across the dashboard at every turn.

It's an annual exodus until the New Year that eventually sees three families, 19 people in all, 10 of them young cousins, crammed into the overstuffed furniture around her parents' front room.

But what used to be a cacophony of shrieking toddlers, in what probably looked like the debris after an explosion in a Lego factory, has turned into something that's, well, remarkably bearable.

The kids, many of them teens and preteens now, mostly swap tips over each other's shoulders about games on phones, laptops, and tablets.

But we still bundle up and pile out the door for noisy walks around the nearby hill and feeding time is still a frenzy of forks around two dinner tables. Then the adults join the kids in chaotic games of Cluedo or Monopoly that routinely degenerate into loud recriminations and laughter – lots and lots of laughter.

TAUNTING

It's all not quite the fever-pitch clamour it once was, but there's still a sort of beautiful bedlam to proceedings which, over time, have developed into traditions, one of these being an annual family gathering around the sitting room where granny holds court as everyone takes turns taunting one another for the amusement of all, before a photograph of the 10 cousins together on the couch.

This year the event quickly becomes Comedy Central.

Our eldest, someone notes, has grown a full beard.

"What do you think, granny?" my wife asks her mum.

"What do I think of what?" says granny from where she's sitting with her walking stick at the centre of the assembly.

"Of the BEARD," says my wife.

"WHAT beard?" says granny, in a way that sounds like the notion is utterly preposterous and she scans the circle of grinning in-laws and grandchildren until, with a start, she notices our eldest, as if it's the first time she's set eyes on him this year. "Oh dear!" she says.

We all explode with laughter, except our eldest, who swivels wide eyes in a 'Who? Me?' expression.

"Oh!" says granny, crumpling up her face and shaking her head this time. "I don't like that at all. He looks . . . devious," she says. "He looks . . . like a 'dago'!"

"A what?" says our eldest.

"Did she just say . . ." wheezes someone else, mopping their eyes.

"Who's Diego?" says the eldest, bewildered.

"Not DIEGO," says granny. "D-"

"Um," I interrupt, "I'm pretty sure that's a bad word – for an Italian."

"He's not ITALIAN," says granny. "Is he?"

We're doubled over now, as two of the cousins produce smartphones and instantly begin Googling. "An 18th- century ethnic slur," reads one of them, "for one from Italy, Spain or Portugal."

"Surely NOT," says granny, incredulously, regarding our eldest again and visibly recoiling. "He doesn't look PORTUGUESE," she says. "But he does look DEVIOUS."

"Eh," says our eldest, "I'm right here?"

"And on that bombshell . . ." I chuckle.

"She's like the granny in that TV ad for ice cream," grins one of the cousins.

"'Pass the potatoes, dad'," I recall, nodding – "'He's not your dad, we never knew WHO your father was', and they drag granny from the room and she thumps the piano on the way out. It's the ad for Carte D'Or – 'some things are made for sharing, others . . . aren't'."

"Oh, really," puffs granny.

When we finally finish dabbing our faces dry, we set about lining all the children up for their photo. It's like the sofa scene in the opening credit of The Simpsons, with everyone diving into place, then reshuffling to find final positions for the pose. The three older teens have to stand behind everyone else and hunch down just to fit into the frame as their grandpa's camera flashes.

IMPOSTER

When it's all done, we plug the camera into the television so that granny can see the pictures.

"Oh my," she says. "Who IS that imposter at the back?"

"That's your friend, Diego," says someone.

"Who?" says granny, recoiling in mock horror once again.

"The 'devious one'," grins someone else.

"Oh dear," she says. "He looks like someone who's sneaked in off the street!"

"Eh," says our eldest, "once more – 'he' is right here," and we all roll around in fits again.

We're still laughing as we start to lay two huge tables for a cartoon family lunch straight out of Enid Blyton's Famous Five.

The decibel level is back to a boisterous clamour with everyone in high spirits and excited to eat as the phone rings and my wife passes me the handset over the hubbub, her face, I notice, suddenly an expression of serious concern.

"You'd better take the phone into the other room," she tells me. "Your family's at the hospice. . . your dad. . ."

And that's when my Christmas comes crashing to the ground.


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