The Family Dinner: A Recipe for Disaster...


Growing up harmoniously in a family blessed with six kids born in a span of ten years brought a laundry list of rules.  Dad made it pretty clear early on that these were not mere suggestions, they were law, “as long as we lived under his roof” they were to be followed, “cased closed”.  Needless to say, these regulations were not open to debate.  Our home was not a democracy, it was a dictatorship; and not a single one of us was foolish enough to question any decree set forth by the king.  To do so was not only forbidden, it was bat-shit crazy.  

The toppers on the list still stand out in my memory after moving out on my own over twenty-one years ago:

Good grades were not anticipated; they were expected.

The lady of the house was referred to as Mom, not her, not she, and certainly not by ever grunting and pointing in “Mom’s” direction (I belive my actions were the reason this rule was instilled).

Tuning into Channel 9 during baseball season was NOT allowed; to do so would invite those “God Damn Cubs” (as dad so eleqouently referred to them)  into the family room.  The White Sox season ticket holder was adamant regarding this rule.  We kids spent a week during the summer of ’75 suffering a television grounding.  We never repeated our mistake.

Dinner at our house was served promptly at six o’clock.  Presence was not anticipated, it was mandatory.  Your ass was expected in your chair with a smile on your face prepared to discuss the goings-on of your daily activites along with your opinion on the particular day’s current events.  Oh, yeah, an appetite was required as well as you were not excused from the table until “your plate was clean”.

Our dinner table hardly resembled anything that looked like a scene out of “Leave it to Beaver”, “Father Knows Best”, or “Ozzie and Harriet”.  Imagine “All in the Family” meets “Rosanne” meets the kids from “Modern Family”.  Not only did each meal represent all four food groups, it provided an edge-of-your-seat dreadful excitement. 


Pre-dinner rituals involved setting the table, helping Mom with last minute preparations, and putting our family dog, Olphie, out on the porch off the kitchen.  My favorite thing to do was to make dad’s salad.  He liked a wedge of iceberg lettuce with homemade thousand island dressing. 

Mom had her own rules too.  I was to mix the miracle whip, ketchup and sugar in a bowl out of dad’s field of view.  When she originally taught me how to make the stuff that was the first instruction she gave me. Knowledge that his dressing involved ketchup or mayo was information he did not need to know.  Information like this could very well be explosive.  Reaction would be something none of us could handle; he had a short fuse, a revelation such as this would certainly set him right over the edge.

Our meals were plain.  Red meat ruled at our dinner table~pork was as dicey as we got. Chicken and fish were mostly a mystery until we got much older.   Most nights mashed potatoes or french fries/hashbrowns were an accompaniment along with a vegetable of corn or carrots and a loaf of crusty bread and butter. 

We never really had dessert~that was something saved for a special occasion.  That’s not to say we never went without a “sweet” on the table.  Applesauce showed up on pork chop night, a jello mold provided the sugar high most other nights.

The meal was served family style.  Someone was usually chosen to lead the rest of us heathens in saying Grace.  Following the utterance of the Amen, plates were passed clockwise and this act began with the king.  “A boarding house reach” was taboo.  Children foolish enough to attempt to break this rule usually had a hand smacked before they got their grubby paws near the plate.  Mom and dad both shared the uncanny ability to witness a reach without even looking in your direction.  It was like a sixth sense.

Most nights mom sat at her place completely shellshocked.  Really, who wouldn’t be?  She was clearly exhausted, and I could count on one hand the amount of times she raised her voice before dinner shouting “I’ve about had it” or “I’ve had it up to here”.   A mother of six kids, namely the six clowns in question sitting around this particular table; it is a wonder the woman did not drink.  With a glazed look in her eye, mom would usually have a little something to eat, then retreat to the fridge for a cold bottle of Pepsi ~ she referred to it as “Peps” and grab her pack of Marlboro Reds.  She would chain smoke through our delightful dinner conversation. 

Dad was the moderator as mom sat in silence.  He rarely asked mom about her day; the look on her face and disheveled hair told him all he needed to know.  Mom never minced words…he was not crazy enough to open those flood gates.  Dinner discussion began with the question of “what did you do today”, followed by dialogue regarding whatever was current in the news.  During this time it always seemed to go south…at this point we sharpened up our “bullying skills”.  There were plenty of dirty looks, tongues stuck out in one another’s direction (someone was always a “show off” during daily activity topics) and general picking on people.  Our youngest sister was usually the easiest target, but every once in awhile, someone else took her place.

One particular night, before the youngest got his braces for his severe over-bite, we would all take turns making a “bucky beaver” face at him when mom and dad were not looking.  He would try to tell them what we were doing, but by the time attention was paid to the current provider of “bucky beaver” face complete with sound effects, the guilty party would have stopped and merely returned the look of scorn with one of innocence followed by a shrug.

As we took our turns making faces at the kid, he let out with a shriek that should have awoken the dead.  Tears streamed down his face as he pointed at the closed french doors on the porch behind the table and screamed “look, look, they’ve got the dog in on it, too”!  There was Olphie with her teeth pressed up to the window pane.  Her upper lip stuck to the window allowing her two front teeth to be seen front and center.  Yep, our dog, often considered “almost human” was clearly in on the prank. 

We all bit our lips to keep from laughing, while Dad quickly excused us one by one.  Mom put out her cigarette and began scraping leftovers onto one plate for the dog’s dinner.  Ah, a typical end to a typical dinner in our house.  No meal was ever quite like the one before.  Looking back, I appreciate the value that was trying to be taught,  family time was sacred.  But what occured at our table on any given night was just not right. 

I understood my parents’ wish to eat a meal together and have conversation, but the extra-curricular activity that took place on any given night was appalling at best when considering today’s standards regarding “bullying”; if it were sport we would be Olympic gold medal champions. 

As time passes though, I realize the things that we once considered terrible were really not all that bad.  When we get together these days we all seem to remember something different.  Belly laughs and tears usually follow the revelation of another memory someone has dug out of the past.  The best lesson we learned at that table was not to take ourselves too seriously.

These days family dinners seem to be a thing of the past.  It is a rare occasion that my kids, husband and I share a meal together due to various scheduling conflits.  We talk about kids’ days at school when they arrive home each afternoon.  Sometimes info comes via text message if time allows.  Current events are discussed in the car as we drive from here to there.

As far as picking on each other.  Although the sport continues thanks to the next generation, instead of it happening exclusively at the dinner table it occurs throughout any given day.  While some of the conversation that took place in my youth with my brothers and sisters makes me cringe today, I would not trade the memories for anything.

Family, for better or for worse, is who you are; home is where the heart is and where you hang your hat.  Whenever I think of the house I grew up in, I immediately think of the kitchen table.  That oak table was where we learned about politics, discovered the art of debate, grew thick skin, learned about each other, it was where we gathered and made the best memories.    

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