They probably picked the carrots out of the stew and refused to eat their crusts but now they’re students… if it’s cheap or free, it’s on the menu.
There’s no doubt about it, the Irish mammy is a formidable force. And the Irish mammy of a son is a particularly fine example of the formidableness. Add into that equation that the son is a big, lumbering 18-year-old and the mammy is a pocket-sized fusspot and it makes for nothing short of pure entertainment.
If you want to observe it in action, this is the season for it. Go to any shopping centre that sells kitchen goods, bed linen and men’s clothes and you’ll see what I mean.
The big, lumbering 18-year-old is embarking on his first term in college and the mammy is the chief organiser. He’s leaving the nest and, whereas the mammy knows it was inevitable, she’s determined to make the new nest in her image, so to speak. No son of hers is going to be found wanting.
Watching the antics and eavesdropping on the conversations is priceless. The mammy is kitting him out with ‘necessities’ like toast racks and George Foreman grills and he’s lumbering along in her wake thinking about pot noodle and girls. She’s showing him the washing instructions on the bed linen and educating him about the thermal properties of flannelette and he’s still thinking about pot noodle and girls. They move onto the clothing section and she starts reminding him of how cute he looked in powder blue. She attempts to regress him and starts piling baby-blue jocks and socks into the trolley but, for the first time in this bizarre expedition, he asserts himself by muttering an embarrassed but emphatic ‘Mam…Maaam’ and he replaces the jocks with stripey boxers that will look cool poking out over the top of his jeans. He’s still thinking about girls.
It never fails to entertain me. Every year it’s the same and so it will be, I suspect, for all time. When children fly the nest for college, parents worry. Primarily, they worry about the whole college thing. Have they made the right choice? Will they cope with the shift in academic gears? Will they be lonely? Will they settle? On a daily basis, they worry about the more mundane issues. Will they get their sleep? Will they do their washing? Will they eat properly?
All over the land at the moment, there are mammies planning big dinners at the weekend. The fledglings probably have a week of college under their belt and they’re coming home for the weekend. There are larder shelves groaning with food, fridges packed to capacity and cupboards creaking at the hinges in anticipation of the prodigals returning. There’ll be big roasts, fluffy mash, homemade tarts and gallons of cream and custard. On Sunday evening or Monday morning as they prepare to take off again, there’ll be emergency supplies packed: brown bread, tea bags, a few slices of tart and maybe a few cartons of homemade soup. The mammy will wave them off again safe in the knowledge that at least they’ll eat until about Tuesday – if they remember to unpack the rucksack, that is.
And the reality of it all is that new students do just fine. When the poor mammy is at home fretting and worrying about her baby and imagining all sorts of woe and starvation, the baby in question is thriving. Granted, they may not be eating as balanced a diet as they’d get at home, but they certainly don’t starve. I work with students from time to time and they never cease to amaze me.
A couple of years ago, Kath Kelly hit the headlines in the UK and was also interviewed on our own national airwaves. Ms Kelly is a single, 40-something, poorly-paid teacher in the UK who never had a spare penny. She had a reasonable lifestyle but it cost her everything she earned to maintain it. When her brother got engaged, she bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t in a financial position to give him and his bride-to-be a decent wedding present. She decided to change her ways. She went on a crusade of living on Stg£1 a day for a year. She gave up taking taxis, buying random cups of coffee, going out on wine nights with the girls. At the end of the year, she had a goodly fortune gathered – enough to buy the brother and wife lifetime membership of the National Trust which cost Stg£1,300.
And she wrote a book about her experience – ‘How I Lived a Year on Just a Pound a Day’ (which costs Stg£6.99. A bit ironic, methinks.). She listed in it all her little money-saving tricks: go shopping when the deli is about to close and get the food at knock-down prices; collect and use money-off vouchers; go to supermarkets on the days when they’re giving out free samples; trawl through the (free) newspapers to find free events that might be giving out free food. I suppose it was newsworthy because of the incongruity of the situation – her profile doesn’t really fit the experience.
But it’s right on the money for students. Students merely have to heave in sight of their academic institution and all these little money-saving tips and tricks come to them instinctively. These beings that have been the finicky bane of their mothers’ lives are now eating anything and everything on offer and all the better if it’s free. The difference between mature Ms Kelly and the average student is the motivation – Ms Kelly freeloaded and sacrificed her social life to buy her brother a pressie; the average student freeloads and budgets creatively to enable a social life. They’re past masters at it.
Indeed, in 1993, I worked with a student who was way ahead of the posse. He’d have put Ms Kelly to shame. His boast was that he could feed himself on £1 a week. Every Monday, he’d buy a packet of Yellow Pack sausages, a tin of Yellow Pack beans and a Yellow Pack pan loaf. Total cost: just under £1 at the time. There were, he told me, 16 sausages in the packet, four reasonable servings of beans in the tin and however many slices in the loaf (I can’t remember, although he did tell me). He’d have beans on toast, sausage and beans, sausage sandwiches and whatever other combinations are possible. Dry goods like tea, sugar and coffee he took from home at the weekends. What, I asked him, about milk?
The milk he stole from doorsteps. Back in the day, there were early-morning milk deliveries that were very often in place when my little entrepreneurial scholar would be staggering back to his student gaff. He’d help himself to a litre that would last him a few days. Would the milkless victims not cop on, I suggested? Would they eventually not lie in wait and catch him in the act? He looked at me as if I’d smacked him. Did I think he’d steal from the same doorstep twice? Did I think he had no honour? No heart? No ethics? Bad as he’d be or staggery as he’d be, he made it a point of principle never to hit the same step twice. That, he reckoned, just wouldn’t be cricket. An honourable rogue.
So I get a giggle when I see the mammies in action with these big children. It would be a waste of time to try to tell them that the toast rack will never see daylight and the new student will probably apply lateral thinking skills and attempt to dry socks in the George Foreman.
And I suppose the nub of it all is that the mammy is suddenly feeling redundant. Well, she shouldn’t. Somebody has to prepare the weekend feast. There’s only so much pot noodle a body can take. And they’ll want to bring a friend home at some point. Maybe it’ll even be a girl.