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Old-school straight talk still has a place

You can't teach a cat to bark, a relative of mine said. She was a strong woman. Born in poverty and dying in self-made solvency. The journey in between was miraculous in all she had to endure and all she gained. She smiled her way through tragedy.

I call this old-fashioned strength. In the 'put up and shut up' generation these people were the backbone, taking in sick relatives and children of other relatives, making ends meet with a pot of something made to feed all and all were made to eat it.

Naturally we grew up with eating phobias, but not disorders. Naturally we didn't remember sharing our feelings with such relatives. They didn't understand the concept of relationship dynamics. They just had a look that said: "Get on with it."

I wouldn't like to have had my relative's life. She had a mentally ill family member to look after in the days when if she didn't that person would end up in an asylum. There were children apart from hers to rear, too. If early death didn't take loved ones, emigration did. She and the late Frank McCourt must have a lot to say to one another where they are now.

She never moaned. She gave out stink when things were wrong or unjust. She never bleated. She didn't take any sh*t from anyone.

There's a line between hardship and abuse and she drew it firmly for herself and anyone who encountered her. I know she would have taken a hurley to any man that tried to raise a hand to her, for instance. Acceptance was her strong point, she didn't get bitter, but neither did she become submissive.

Her reaction to the 21st-century method of problem solving, had she lived to see this century, would have been to raise her single eyebrow, a trait I've inherited from her, and say: "Well there they are, in their self-help groups and reading books as if they've no common sense for themselves."

When people treat us badly in this century we are encouraged to look at their motivations, why are they jealous, bullying, withholding and bitter? What happened to them when they were four? How can we learn to cope with our distress in their treatment of us and encourage them to behave differently towards us? I can hear my ancestor saying loudly: "Sugar to that when it needs salt." This was her way of saying sometimes people are just plain nasty and understanding why they are that way doesn't mean they're going to cop themselves on.

Our habit of talking things out is a progression. I wouldn't want go back to hiding things under carpets. I believe that's why we have varnished floors now. But we can be too understanding. Sometimes the person we love is just crap, sometimes the more we give them understanding the more of a piss artist they are going to be.

Plain speaking and direct action are sometimes the only way to get through to people who are taking you for a ride. If you try nice and it doesn't work, get the message. Maya Angelou said: "When people show you who they are, believe them."

If someone you are involved with is making your life a misery, you need to figure out how much of that you are prepared to put up with. My ancestor took very little before she set fire to someone.

I am a calmer descendant, but I also support her lifelong thesis: if you take what you take, you get what you get.