To the disgruntled aunt on the train


Really I should be writing to the nephew of the woman I overheard complaining on the train yesterday. You see the nephew hosts Christmas dinner in his house, as the disgruntled aunt explained to her travelling companion (a woman of few words), and anyone else in the carriage who spoke Swiss German. He invites the extended family, including his disgruntled aunt, for a fondue chinoise on December 24th.

(Cultural note: fondue chinoise is not remotely traditional but it has become really popular as the seasonal celebratory meal. You have a big platter of thin strips of raw meat and each person spears their piece of meat on a fork and cooks in a hot broth set up over a flame on the table. This is eaten with French fries, salad and a selection of up to five mayonnaise based sauces for the meat.)

Now the disgruntled aunt usually contributes lamb’s lettuce (Nüsslisalat) to this meal and she brings a lot more than is needed, a kilo in fact. So the nephew has at least 500g left over and can eat lamb’s lettuce all week. Lamb’s lettuce lasts for ages.

But this year the nephew is asking the guests to chip in to pay for the meat. The aunt is outraged, what with all the extra lamb’s lettuce she’s been providing , not that she ever got a word of thanks or recognition for that. And lamb’s lettuce is not cheap.

In revenge this year, the loud aunt will contribute only 500g of lettuce and certainly no money and we’ll see what the nephew thinks of that.

There is a separate row simmering in the family over the Christmas songs. Another relative takes it upon herself to print out a booklet of Christmas songs for everyone to sing together and there have been mutterings about the songs being too old fashioned, and there is one in particular that the loud aunt cannot abide and she has asked the other relative to strike it out because she simply cannot bear it.

The disgruntled aunt provided some entertainment for her fellow travellers today but also a little food for thought. Why is the nephew hosting a party he cannot afford, inviting people who are less than grateful? If he can afford it, why is he asking for money? Is this the kind of Christmas gathering these people should be having? How many other people are chained to arrangements that they are dreading? And of course, wouldn’t this gathering make a very entertaining Christmas film?

All this reminds me of a sweet poem by Frances Cornford which I first heard earlier this year from a colleague of mine who recited it at a very apt moment, the details of which I can’t remember now.

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much.

This post is in tribute to Maeve Binchy, the great advocate and champion of listening in to conversations.

8 thoughts on “To the disgruntled aunt on the train

  1. Your questions are truly “food for thought.” Tradition has its charms. But if no one is enjoying an old tradition, maybe it’s time to try something new.

    1. Yes, I think it’s the idea of being locked into an arrangement that is so awful. How to spend Christmas, or other holiday gatherings, should not be set in stone.

  2. Yes, food for thought on family gatherings in general. It’s a shame Auntie didn’t keep it ‘in the family’ though, but then we’d have missed out on this post! I listened to Anne Enright on RTE radio the other night, talking about Irish family get-togethers (her new book ‘The Green Road’ out in May 2015) and she mentioned an Irish guy in London who said he wasn’t going home for Xmas. ‘I hate my family’ he said. ‘What’s that got to do with it’ came the reply.

      1. The interview was on the Book Show 6 December – the show in which they announced the winner and runners-up of the 100 words 100 books comp. we still have daily temps in the high 20s here, Clare, but the Malls are all geared up and Santy’s on his way!

  3. Lovely, Clare – I guess you never thought your train journey would turn into a blog post! I don’t really do Christmas, partly for these reasons: people do get stuck in a rut with traditions nobody really wants. It was great to be reminded of that poem, which I have come across before, and fits perfectly with your point (although I’m not sure why the woman has to be fat). Also, having grown lamb’s lettuce I can vouch for the fact that the kilo of the stuff would be an awful lot, but it’s pretty tasteless anyway.
    Also (there’s so much in this post) I’m interested that the Swiss have taken on the Chinese hotpot and turned it into a fondue – I can see the link!
    Finally, you might like this musical updating of a traditional carol

    Happy Christmas!

    1. I agree about the lady being fat. Surely the gloves are the point!
      I enjoyed the Holly and the Ivy, never heard that version before. Am I right in thinking your voice is in there somewhere? I know you sing in a choir …
      Happy Christmas to you too!

  4. I haven’t read that poem for ages! Thanks for reminding me of it. Christmas brings out the worst in us, doesn’t it? Coping with nearest and dearest is bad enough without dragging in extended family. I wonder why your lamb’s lettuce woman didn’t just stay at home and watch the snow fall?

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