By Lucy Hester
For the first eight or ten years of my life, dinner began the
same way. My mom would tell my brother and me to bow our heads,
and together my family would recite the dinner prayer. “God is
great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. Amen.” I do
not remember being taught this prayer, but I do remember not knowing
the right words. For a long time, I thought the dinner prayer
was said in a foreign language. Nightly, I would bow my head and
recite with confidence, “Goddace grace, Goddace goo, lettuce thanken
forrar foon. Amen.”
We ate dinner in a kitchen with blue and white linoleum floors.
My dad picked out this pattern when my parents first bought our
house. He liked it for the UK colors. Our table was an eight-sided
phenomenon that was attached to the wall on two sides and supported
by a single pole in the center. Each person had an assigned seat.
My father sat next to the wall on which the telephone hung. If
it rang during dinner, he answered with a resounding “Hesters’,”—never
a hello—and asked whoever was on the other line to please call
back later, because we were eating. I sat next to him and next
to me sat my brother. My mother’s seat, by the other wall, was
considered to be the worst because from it there was no clear
view of the fourteen-inch television that sat on our table.
My family has always eaten dinner with the television on. On
the nights when my father was home and the whole family was eating
together, we watched the news. We always turned to NBC and watched
Tom Brokaw, because my dad liked him better than Dan Rather. I
understood little about politics or world events, and I asked
too many questions, but during the commercials my dad explained
anything I was curious about. From him, I learned how the stock
market works and the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
I asked many of the same questions repeatedly, but no matter how
many times he had already told me what the Dow Jones was, my dad
was never at a loss for words.
Many nights, my father did not make it home for dinner. The phone
would ring at around six o’clock and my mom would set down the
knife she was using to slice apples, or the can-opener she was
using to open a can of Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli, and she would
answer the phone with a rehearsed “Hello, this is the H. residence.”
A thirty-second conversation would ensue, and then my mom would
take the glass plate cover out of its cabinet, put it over a food-laden
plate and push it to one side. On these nights, she let my brother
and me watch whatever we wanted. Often, we watched Wishbone
or Bill Nye the Science Guy. If it was later in the evening,
we watched Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy. Sometimes
we would keep score as we played along. Naturally, though, we
never lost points for the questions we got wrong.
Gradually, dinner came to incorporate responsibility. It was
my job to pour the milk, because I was taller and stronger than
my brother was, and more able to handle a full gallon of skim
milk. It was his assigned duty to set the table, but I could not
stand that he always did it wrong, so I would follow along behind
him and put the silverware in the right places and fold the napkins.
At some point, we learned how to run the dishwasher and wash dishes
by hand and on nights when my father was feeling particularly
parental, he would tell my brother and me that we “got” to clean
the kitchen, like it was a big treat.
At some point, my family outgrew the “God is great” prayer and
we moved on to our own, improvised devotions. My greatest dinnertime
fear (aside from the presence of squash casserole on my plate)
became my mother’s occasional request that I bless the meal. I
would breathe deeply and quickly utter something that sounded
appropriate. Once finished, I sighed in relief at the knowledge
that my prayer duty was fulfilled for at least a couple of weeks.
After my dad moved out, dinner became strange. We ate a lot of
Papa John’s pizza and Chinese food. During this period, my brother
ate at a neighbor’s house nearly every night, and my mom wore
sunglasses at the table. I pretended not to notice. We did not
talk, because the only things to talk about were things that could
not really be said. I baked a lot that year.
My dad moved back in and dinner became lively and home-cooked
again, though pleasant conversation was forced. We did not watch
television during the meal anymore, because we needed to “focus
on each other.” My father moved out again. He moved in again later,
then still later, out. He came and went and moved and stayed,
and sometimes he ate with us and sometimes, he did not. I began
ignoring all of his attempts at conversation. Wheel of Fortune
became all consuming.
During one of my father’s stays within my home, my parents decided
to put an addition onto the back of our house. The construction,
however, did not begin until after my father had left, finally
for good. The addition included a new kitchen. The old octagonal
table was ripped from the wall, the blue and white checkered linoleum
floor was peeled away, and the wall where the telephone had hung
was demolished. The new kitchen has wooden floors and marble countertops
and yellow-painted walls, and lots of windows. We eat at a table
that stands on four legs and wears a tablecloth. My mom does not
wear sunglasses indoors anymore.
I wish I could say that at dinnertime, we bask in the warm yellow
glow of community and thrive on the hum of harmony. I wish I could
say that we excitedly and intellectually discuss world issues
and our own lives. I wish I could say that we linger at the table,
enjoying each other’s company long after our meals are gone and
dessert has become an aftertaste on our tongues, but I cannot.
That would be the most acceptable picture to paint, but what actually
happens is this: we eat together often. Not every night, but most.
I pour the milk—still skim—and set the table for three, while
my mom finishes putting together the meal. Usually, she cooks.
She makes salad, or breakfast, or soup. We take our seats, which
are always the same. Mine is considered to be the worst at the
table, because it is the chair that does not face the television.
When she remembers, my mother says a prayer before we eat. I generally
do not attach myself to her prayers anymore, but I still always
close my eyes and fold my hands, out of habit and the long held
belief that I have held since I was young, that although her eyes
are closed as she prays, my mother will know if I don’t bow my
head. She will know, and God’s disappointment will befall me.
After “amen,” we eat. Sometimes we will talk to each other, but
usually we turn on the TV—we have a big-screen one now. We laugh
together at re-runs of Will & Grace or Seinfeld,
or play along with Jeopardy, or watch the news. We watched Tom
Brokaw until he retired this year. Now we watch his replacement,
Brian Williams. I ask questions during the commercials, but my
mother has never been good at explaining anything. I ask more
out of a need to clarify my confusions to myself than with hopes
of obtaining information. When the meal is gone or we are too
full to eat more, my mom pulls a deck of cards out from a kitchen
drawer. She spreads them out on the table—which is covered by
a black and white checkered tablecloth she made last year—and
amidst the groans of my brother and me, we each draw one. Highest
card does the dishes.
Every month or so, I meet my dad at a restaurant so we can eat
together. He orders salads and talks about politics. I order fish
sandwiches and conveniently forget to mention that I am a Democrat.
I usually come home afterwards to find my mom dozing on the couch,
in front of the television. She wakes up when I come in, and sleepily
asks, “How’s Dad?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I respond, “the same, I guess.” Then I put
my leftovers in the refrigerator and lie down next to her, to
watch what she’s watching.