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July 30, 2014
I wonder what our kids remember of the family dinner table. I remember the dinner table of my childhood. The kitchen was right opposite the front door. You walked in the door, turned right into the bedroom I shared with my sister, left to go down the hall to the living room/dining room (also my parents' bedroom and the bathroom), and straight ahead into the kitchen. There was a chrome table with a yellow formica top. My father sat at the left end of the table, and while dinner was being prepared that's where he sat for his nightly cocktail. My mother sat at the right end of the table, opposite the stove. I sat on the side, with my back facing the front door. Karen sat across from me.
We ate dinner together as a family every night. On nights when my father was gone (he worked the mail on the train to Los Angeles, so was gone two or three nights a week), my mother would prepare something odd for dinner -- scrambled eggs, pancakes, "milk toast" (buttered toast with warm milk poured over it) and things like that. Something easy. When Daddy was home it was meat and potatoes and vegetables...and dessert. My mother dished up our dinner, so we didn't have bowls of food on the table.
She was a very good cook, but not an adventurous cook. Chops, steak, pot roast, fried chicken and Italian food (my father's favorite)... those were the staples. Yet what she cooked was great. I have made many pot roasts in my day, none as good as hers. I have never acquired the "touch" that she had with meat loaf. I am always disappointed in my meat loaves. The most adventurous she got was enchiladas, which she learned to prepare from a Mexican neighbor. She was famous for her enchiladas. As she got older, I brought her to my house and sat and watched her prepare them, and I still never got them right. Mine are OK, but they aren't what my mother fixed.
I think that's why I have learned how to make Mexican food, Chinese food, and am always looking for that "new taste" when I choose a recipe...because I suck at the basics that my mother made!
Dessert was always a part of dinner. It wasn't always something easy like ice cream, but she would make pies or cakes or cookies for dinner. I remember my father getting angry with me one time because I decided I didn't feel like dessert. Strange reaction to a fat kid who definitely didn't need dessert. But then "getting angry" was what my father did best.
I wish I could remember that we had long, interesting talks over dinner, but dinner was usually a time of tension. My father chose dinnertime to air his grievances, either against us or against the world. And lord help us if the phone rang. Whether we were eating at 5 or at 8, anybody who made the mistake of calling ruined the rest of dinner for all of us. He would yell and scream about the intrusion on his dinner and then lapse into silence for the rest of the meal.
My sister and I reacted differently to the dinner stress -- I learned to eat as fast as I could so I could get away from the table; she ate so slowly she was often still at the table two hours later (because you had to finish dinner before you could get down).
As Karen got older and began to form her own opinions on the topics of the day, dinnertime was the time for loud and angry arguments because she almost always disagreed with my father. My mother and I fled and let my father and Karen fight it out. Whatever the issue was, it was never something that was forgotten when dinner was over, but would fester until the next day.
I loved the nights when I got invited to my friend Gayle's house for dinner and tried to hang out there every night so they would invite me. They had nice dinners and I don't remember anybody getting angry with anybody, but my mother eventually told me that I was being a nuisance (which I'm sure I was) and I didn't eat there as often any more.
For holidays, we ate in the dining room. Dinner always included my father's parents and one or two others, usually including my godfather (my grandfather's brother who had lived alone most of his life, after his wife left him -- a good Catholic, he would not remarry, or even date). We had a table cloth, cloth napkins, the good silverware and good china and crystal, and on top of the dish cabinet behind where my father always sat was the 2 pound box of See's candy which my godfather always brought to dinner, which we would pass around after dessert had been finished. Things weren't quite so tense at holidays, but tension was never far from the surface, especially with my grandmother, whom my father did not like, and my grandfather, whom my grandmother didn't like much.
When I moved away from home (and I couldn't get away soon enough!) I don't really remember anything about the dining room of the dorm where I lived because I eventually started cooking for the house where Walt and six other guys lived, so ate there every night. This is where I learned how to cook, because my mother never taught me anything about cooking. I became a fairly decent cook, and especially good at making something tasty with a very very small budget. But the quality of my cooking aside, dinners were fun. There were always guests, so maybe 10 or 12 people at the table. I loved those dinners. There was laughter and fun and conversation, the kind I thought famlies had at the dinner table.
We married and started having children. Like my family, we always had dinner together at the table...almost never fast food picked up, but food I cooked. In our Oakland house, the stove even had a soup burner, where I could keep stock simmering on the stove all day. I tried to have "meaningful dinners," but over the years I found that there was some residual PTDSD (Post Traumatic Dinner Stress Disorder) in me that made me very nervous when we sat down to the table to eat. I usually served everyone and then found things to do in the kitchen to avoid sitting down many nights.
It was better in the years when we had foreign students, when I worked to involve them in the conversation at dinner each night, despite their English limitations. We had Nelson and Sonia here once, both from Brasil, and we made some nights Portuguese night, where you could only speak in Portuguese. The best sentence we all had was "how do you say this in Portuguese," as we lifted something up to show the Brasilians in order to get the word.
We had a lot of fun when Chieko (Japan), Juan (Venezuela) and Ndangi (Congo) were here together, all learning English and laughing together over dinner.
I think I finally got over PTDSD during those 10 years of feeling I had to take care of the foreigners living with us. And we had the holidays dinners that were times of great crisis, but also great fun, with as many as 24 people sitting at one long table that entirely filled our family room.
Dinners at my mother's house after she finally left my father and married Fred were usually OK, devoid of stress unless Fred's mother, who thought we were vermin not worth her time, was at the table, when she steadfastly refused to look up from her plate, answer anything directed to her, and left as soon as she had eaten. Ned, bless him, decided one night that he was going to get through to her, but she was, as my mother was fond of describing any of Fred's relatives "a stubborn Dutchman" and she never did come to accept us. But we had a good time without her.
When our nest was empty, we had a few years of "entertaining." There were a few people with whom we exchanged dinner dates and I loved those times, especially when our guests were interesting conversationalists. But the 3 dogs and my perennial inability to keep a clean house eventually put an end to our entertaining, and with that our invitations to others' homes ended as well.
Now dinners are quiet. Walt and I don't have much to say to each other at dinner, so the TV is on while we eat (thought we still eat at the table...we don't own TV trays). When I go to Atria, if my mother and I are sitting by ourselves, lunch is a continuation of visiting at the apartment, answering the same questions over and over again.
The fun of the dinner is when we go to our children's homes where we usually have peaceful meals with interesting conversation, even with the grandkids, and I hope that somehow my kids avoided PTDSD and actually have the kind of idealistic dinners I thought families usually had together.
100 HAPPY DAYS
Day 30 -- Happiness is my afternoon nap!
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