My mother had an unshakeable belief in the power of healthy eating. “Diet Does It” was her bible and Gaylord Hauser was her guru.
Our kitchen cupboards bulged with blackstrap molasses, wheatgerm and brewer’s yeast. There was always freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast, my mother being under the impression that if she did not supply us with vast quantities of Vitamin C, we would be found stretched out, dead from scurvy before nightfall.
Proteins, fats and carbohydrates were nicely balanced in our three square meals a day: that is, they were low in animal protein and fat and high in carbohydrate. Every modern athlete now knows that this is the healthy, high-energy way to eat, but forty years ago in small-town Mayo, my mother was a trail-blazer.
My father grew an array of vegetables in the garden; these came to our table bursting with goodness and flavour from our incomparable compost heap. We were trained as children to collect our leftovers to feed this voracious mound and woe betide the misbegotten unfortunate who threw an apple core in the non-biodegradable bin. They were harangued on the nitrogen and phosphates they were wasting until they were forced to pick out the offending garbage and put it in its proper place.
Because both my parents were teachers, it was expected of us that we would pass our exams. My mother believed that a diet rich in nutrients would make us brighter at school. To her credit, much of modern scientific research agrees with her. In other words, to lack iron, zinc, or God forbid, the B vitamins could be detrimental to the results of the Leaving. There was no actual pressure to study, mark you, for this might upset the delicate balance of our personalities. No, good food, plenty of exercise, and early to bed would see us through. We were the model family, everyone’s example of how to live happily and healthily.
Came the day that will remain forever etched in my memory. It was the day it dawned on my mother, like the poet, that life is not what it seems. It was the day she grew up, nutritionally speaking. My teenage brother had arrived home late one evening as my mother was clearing the tea-table.
“I suppose you had a meal at the O’Connors?” she said crossly, and glanced at my father in the hope he would reprimand his son for his tardiness. My father, however, was engrossed in looking up a quotation from Shakespeare that my sister needed for an essay.
My brother looked at my mother with the air of a traveller who has come from distant lands and has seen strange sights.
“Meal?” he said, curling his lip, Bogart-style. “There are no meals in that house.”
“No meals?” My mother stopped clattering the dishes and stared at him.
“There’s a white loaf left on the table,” he threw at her, “and a pot of tea stewing on the range all day. If you get hungry, you help yourself.”
My mother had to sit down. Not only were the O’Connor children tall, strong-limbed and good at sports, they were also quite brilliant at school.
“I found the quotation at last,” smiled my father, looking up from the Collected Works. “Here it is: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’