At My Father’s Table

“Why aren’t you eating your salad?” my father demanded.

“I will,” I answered as I carefully mixed just the right amount of peas into a forkful of mashed potatoes that were seasoned with butter NOT gravy. Peas are disgusting, but mama makes me eat some anyways, both for my nutritional health and in hope that someday my tastes might change. I had figured out that if I controlled the number of peas, I could swallow them whole using the potatoes to camouflage them from my nine-year-old gag reflex.

“You’re supposed to eat your salad before you eat the rest of your meal, not after,” dad said.

I sighed as I reluctantly stuck the fork in my mouth. I hated these eating critiques that he insisted on bringing to every meal.

“It’s not a proper salad anyways. There’s no tomatoes or salad dressing.”

“I don’t like them,” I mumbled after carefully swallowing.

“How can you say you don’t like them?” he said and then continued without waiting for a response. “You like ketchup and spaghetti sauce don’t you? How can you not like tomatoes?”

I nodded, but it was more at the relief that the peas had gone down without me having to taste any of them than at my father’s use of logic. One more forkful should do the trick of keeping mama satisfied, I thought as I surveyed my plate for just the right ratio of green to white and brown. Then I could concentrate on the meatloaf and salad, which were my favorite parts of the meal. My father continued his criticism of my eating habits while I wondered who these people were who made the rule that salad has to be eaten at the beginning of the meal and not after. And why was it necessary for me to eat a bite of each item on my plate in rotation instead of eating all of one thing and then another? I thought we were a free country. How can you be free if someone dictates what order you have to eat your food?

Fridays were the one day of the week I could eat my meal in peace. Every Friday night, my father “had” to go to the officer’s club with his other Air Force colleagues for drinks and male bonding. He never got home until nine or ten, and since he had consumed at least three martinis, he was in a great mood and I had already eaten. Mama always went to bed early, and I got to make my own dinner, which was usually meat, French fries, and a salad. Later in life, I learned to like some dressing on my salad, and out of extreme hunger in Vietnam, I learned to eat tomatoes as well. But cooked peas of any kind are still revolting to me. Raw is a different story. I can eat raw peas out of the garden all day long.

Eventually, I found out that the rules of etiquette are suggestions of good manners and not rules that sent one to jail or worse. I suspect that my father’s daily assault on my eating preferences were as much an attempt to control a rebellious child as they were attempts to teach manners. When I left home at seventeen, it was as much for the ability to eat my meals in peace as it was to have whatever other freedoms emancipation offered.

All of these memories came back to me recently when I found myself getting angry at the dinner table. I had made an error while getting dinner and was really mad at myself, but my wife and son’s comments didn’t help matters. So I got up and left. Using a hot shower to cool off, I was able to return and eat a calm meal. It is a gift I give myself and have attempted to pass on to my sons. Meals are for enjoyment, including enjoying the company of those we love and care about. If we can’t do that, then we should recuse ourselves until we can. Life is hard enough without making meals miserable.

It’s not that we don’t discuss important issues at the dinner table. We do. Exhibit A is that it was at the dinner table that Michael told us he was joining the Navy rather than going to college as we had planned. But such topics are for after the meal, not during. It has been observed by people wiser than me that most people create many of their own problems. My father is eighty-eight and wonders why he and I aren’t closer either geographically or emotionally. He doesn’t remember all of the unpleasant meals we ate as I grew up, while I can’t forget. He can’t understand how he created this situation, and I can’t explain it to him. I’ve tried, but he is too old to hear me.

I can’t remedy his failures. All I can do is make sure not to repeat them. Only time will tell whether I was successful.