Starving African Children Save Irish Girl…

(It’s always worth naming the elephant in the room- even accidentally…)

I had a very mean grandmother. She was an angry woman who, no doubt, had a lot of pain of her own, but that is immaterial when you are a child and at the receiving end of adult wrath. Anyway, she constantly berated all of us kids.  She criticized us, told us were were wrong in every way that it’s possible to be wrong – hair too thick, too thin, too straight, too curly – every way we were was the wrong way to look or be and so was every thing we did. She was, to put it simply, the very antithesis of the doting granny.

Each meal with our granny was a long complaint about how we were ungrateful wretches who pushed our food around our plates not wanting to eat it while thousands of children in Africa were starving. I felt she had a good point here and I was always very sorry about my ingratitude.  I was not a fan of a lot of the food on my plate and I was pretty sure she was right that there were loads of children in Africa – and elsewhere – who would be glad to eat my dinner. I tried to work out how I might contact them and offer them my vegetables in particular, but I never came up with a feasible plan and just had to swallow the guilt along with the turnip.

Anyway, one day when I was about 5, my grandmother was complaining bitterly about the shower of ingrates around the table and fussing around the kitchen while we (me, my sister and some of my cousins ranging in ages from about 4 to 8) pushed our food around our plates. We were treated to the usual starving children from Africa routine and I was feeling pretty guilty. Then my grandmother began to enumerate the many ways in which we were ungrateful, culminating in a very angry declaration – “You are selfish brats the lot of you! Have any of you asked your mother (my aunt) if she has had a bite to eat? No. Not one of you. You just sit there wasting good food and you don’t have a thought for any other human being…”

I was stunned. She really had a point. None of us had asked if anybody else had eaten. We had just come and sat at the table when we were told without as much as a thought for anybody else. Just then the back door opened and my aunt came into the kitchen carrying a basket overflowing with laundry. I could see she was tired. I figured she was hungry. I wasn’t fond of the dinners my grandmother expected us to eat but adults seemed to like them and my grandmother was right about us. So I asked the question.

“Have you had your dinner?”

My aunt stopped, momentarily and looked at me. My grandmother gasped in anger and my sister and cousins gasped in fear. As soon as she recovered from the shock of my question, my grandmother began a new rant. This was a rant about children who were cheeky as well as ungrateful and what she would do if she had her way…

I was confused. My eyes filled with tears and I picked at my dinner and tried to work out what had happened. She was acting as if I’d done something really bad and all I’d done was what she had said I should do. I could feel the injustice throughout my body – and then I realised it.

It was brilliant. Like a door opening into a sunny yard or a breeze on your face when you’re too warm – nothing could make her happy. No matter what we did.

No matter how hard we worked or how much we changed it’d make no difference.

If we washed behind our ears or tidied up or looked after our toys, minded our manners, said our prayers, spoke quietly, stopped having fun – she’d still be unhappy and…

…it was nothing to do with me or my siblings or cousins.

So I stopped trying to please her. I resigned myself to it being impossible – like finding the end of the rainbow (take my word for it that is also impossible – I tried loads of times).  And, while the initial slap of injustice was horrible, it was, at least, clear and little as was, I learned a very valuable lesson which simplified my life greatly as I grew up.

By some gift of the universe I realised an important fact that fateful day.

The simple truth is that some people don’t want to be happy and no matter what you do it won’t work and make them happy.  Even becoming someone else (a girl with a clean face and dolls with legs) won’t make them happy – so the best idea is to forget about it and do what you think you should do anyway (even if they don’t understand it) and just get on with living your life…


  1. You’ve described my (maternal) grandmother perfectly. And to this day I still feel badly about not once being able to help shift her mood. Never did I see her smile, or laugh, or show any emotion beyond bitterness. And despite that, I still harbor a long-held regret that I was never able to do anything to help lighten her load. If I had a magic wand, that would be high on the list of things past I would do my best to change. But you’re probably right. Its best to let it go. (Both her parents were from Ireland, by the way. I wonder if that had anything to do with it?) 😉

    1. I can never quite work out how I managed to work that stuff out that day but I am grateful for it and think it might have helped me recognise this phenomenon in other places too. Your grandmother was a lucky woman and should have been deliriously happy to have a grandson who would (still) love to have eased her pain. Maybe she appreciates it now, wherever she is? The thing is facing the world with bitterness and resentment is a choice. I have known people who have suffered in multifarious ways and they are warm and sweet and loving – and happy. I have no doubt that our grandmothers suffered in their lives – probably outside of their control – but choosing to pass it on was a choice. As for the Irish connection, it might not be a coincidence that she had Irish parents. We seem to have a capacity for warmth and cold in equal measure. I’ll tell you though, I sincerely hope I’ve never made any child feel responsible for my happiness. Thanks for the comment, William.

  2. where’s your like button? it’s mia. anyway, very nice piece my friend. hard for kids to understand, but some people will be miserable regardless… xo, sm

  3. What a misery she was and yet what a gift you learned from her… Some enjoy the drama of negativity and once we figure them out, you are right, it is best to let them be. 🙂

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