My adopted family has a traditional joke at the dinner table that has been kept alive for over 40 years. My mom’s brother, uncle Charlie, was the first to introduce us to this “joke” and it almost always came up when our families got together for special occasions. The joke is a “conversation” that occurs between two people, one of whom is “hard of hearing.” I’ve never been told if this was an actual occurrence or just something that my uncle made up out of the blue. It basically goes like this: An older gentleman asks a dinner guest if he would like more to eat. The guest replies, “No thanks, I’ve had sufficient.” The older gentleman then says, “Oh, you say you went fishing!!” To which the dinner guest politely replies, “No, no I said I’ve had plenty.” The older gentleman responds, “Oh my! You say you caught twenty!!” I know it’s kind of corny, but we still laugh at it all these years later.
As I think back through life, I have countless memories of mealtimes. Most memories are fairly benign, but there are those certain moments at the dinner table one never forgets. Until the age of six, I lived with my Italian grandparents in upstate New York. My uncle Tony and his family would often join us for many of the wonderful home-cooked Italian meals my dear grandmother would prepare. If I have one certain memory of any of those gatherings, it’s that they were all LOUD. A room full of Italians is only going to be quiet if they’re all deceased.
In the summer of 1979, I moved Virginia to live with my parents. The eight months of physical and mental abuse that I suffered through has all but been erased from my memory. I couldn’t tell you about one single mealtime experience I had with them.
Upon my adoption in March of 1980, my life became “normal” again. My adopted parents are very traditional people who believe in sitting down together as a family for most meals and always for dinner. For supper, the three of us sat at our small table in front of the kitchen window, which looked out into the backyard. Through the trees behind us, the Johnston family had built a house. My father, who sat at the head of the table directly in front of the window, would mess with my mom and me. Pretending that he saw something, my dad would say, “Oh my, there goes Mr. Johnson in his underwear!” Of course, my mother and I would immediately stand up, turning our heads to get a look at the insane neighbor behind us. And, of course, there was no Mr. Johnson in his underwear. But for the five years we lived there it was a common dinnertime joke.
My parents were also traditional in the sense that you were expected to clean your plate before you could leave the table. Until the age of seven, I had never really had my palette tested by a variety of foods, so for a time there were some minor skirmishes at the table between my mother and me. One particular night, my mom made me clean my plate, and she still feels bad about it to this day (we laugh about it now). My mom made fish for dinner and I had probably never eaten fish, unless it was in the form of a deep-fried stick smothered in ketchup. Getting me to eat the fish was already going to be like pulling teeth. But it wasn’t just the fish that I was expected to eat. There was something else that I needed to consume if I was going to get dessert. The “onion” on my plate needed to be eaten as well. “Eat it, it’s an onion!” my mother said. And she wasn’t playing around. Slowly, I choked down the horrible-tasting vegetable bit by bit. If this is what onions tasted like, I was never going to eat another one for the rest of my life. It was well after dinner and the “onion” had been eaten when my mom came to the horrifying realization that the onion she had forced me to eat was in actuality the slice of lemon that had been cooked with the fish. Needless to say, she felt horrible and apologized profusely. At least I didn’t have to worry about contracting scurvy that night.
When my first sister was born, the highchair was added to our dinner table. As a toddler, my sister provided her own share of mealtime antics. I can remember sitting at my seat watching her fall asleep in the highchair on many occasions. It was pretty much the same thing every time. My sister’s eyelids would start becoming heavy. Her head would slowly fall forward and then snap back quickly as she caught herself dozing off. In several instances her head would actually fall forward and hit the highchair tray, as well as any remaining food on it. Whether right or wrong, we always got some good chuckles from these moments. The same sister was also a bit of a drama queen, especially when it came to eating green beans. Don’t ask me what it was, but her eating green beans was like watching an exorcism. My mom was trying to instill the same “clean your plate” values in my sister, but as soon as the green bean entered her mouth, the gagging and convulsing kicked into overdrive. You would have thought my sister was being forced to eat a cat turd. To this day, I honestly don’t know if my sister has ever gotten over her disdain for green beans.
Over the years, my family grew and by the time I left the nest, there were eight places around the table (two more places would be added several years later). We continued to eat as a family through all those years. I’m still surprised to this day that my parents didn’t just opt for putting a trough in the middle of the kitchen. As crazy as feeding eight people at a time was, my mealtimes were about to get even crazier….
Less than a week after graduating from high school, I went to Fort Benning, Georgia for infantry basic training. The days of sitting around a table and sharing a leisurely meal with family were out the window. Instead, I was shoveling as much food into my gullet as I could in 10 minutes while screaming drill sergeants reminded us how much they liked us. As much fun as eating meals like that was, it did prepare me for the way I would be eating meals at VMI for the next eight months of my life in the rat line. As a rat, meals in the mess hall were just that—a mess. Every rat was required to sit on the front two to three inches of his chair. One’s back had to be kept straight and knees had to be kept together. You looked down at your plate the whole time and every bite had to be “squared.” In other words, your utensil always moved in the shape of an upside-down “L” from the plate to your mouth and back down again. Add to all that the yelling by upperclassmen, and you’ve got yourself a pleasant dining experience.
Since VMI, I’ve raised two young men and continued the traditions at the dinner table that my parents instilled in me. We sat together without distractions (if you don’t count the neighbor in his underwear) and talked to each other, as a family should. My hope is that my boys will do the same with their future families someday.
People gathered around the dinner table for food, laughs, merriment and just being humans. I don’t know that it happens as much as it used to, or certainly needs to.
I’m extremely thankful that I have many memories around the dinner table and the tales that go along with them.