Dinner Time: Circa 1968

Nothing’s gonna change my world
Jai Guru Deva OM

Eating dinner at my house was pretty much a thirty minute game of survival-of-the-2016-01-19-1453218206-9341429-martin_luther_king_jr__montgomery_arrest_1958most-invisible for the three of us kids. The cleverest of the bunch was able to duck under dad’s radar and avoid pressing whatever hot-button issue was brewing just below the surface for him. Often it was a racism issue or a sex or religion issue or something to do with a current popular song on the radio which fueled–in his mind– an increasing cultural depravity in the generation of anti-establishment teenagers who occupied his classrooms.

Dad hated religion but he hated what society became in its absence even more. I don’t know that he recognized the dichotomy there but it kept him embroiled in an emotional battle that he foisted on his owns kids as he constantly prodded and poked us about concepts he’d caught wind of from his students and from which he was determined to save us.

Sometime after his insistence that my mother convert to Catholicism, my dad lost his faith. Mom went Whole Hog into Catholicism, The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit, et al. We never said Holy Ghost in our house. It’d send dad into fits of laughter and taunting and who, together with mom, delighted at the hocus-pocus delivered by Vatican II and wanna’ be Catholics, also known as Protestants, who referred to the Most Holy Presence as a mere ghost.

I learned a permanent lesson the one time I strayed from the routine of rote reverence, sign_crossreplacing our pre-meal prayer and Sign of the Cross chant, Father/Son/Holy Spirit, with “Ketchup/Mustard/Chocolate Custard,”   right there at the dinner table. Out loud. In front of dad. He didn’t think he’d heard me quite right and asked, “What did you just say?”

It’s accurate to say that a pall fell over the kitchen.  The whole house really. Dad’s reactions were big.  Always. My response to his question was a sickening mixture of fear and dread. Humor was the underlying theme of our early family life and truthfully, my entire life. Even now. But my little chocolate chant wasn’t funny to dad. His expectation that we not be assholes eclipsed his struggling disbelief in God and his absolute belief that Catholics valued blind faith and ritualistic chanting more than a transcendental study of the Great Unknown.

I wasn’t slapped for my irreverence. I’d braced myself for it. I broke the terrifying silence with a clumsy, “Um, I dropped my fork I think. Is it my turn for dishes tonight? I’ll do them either way. I’ll just do the dishes tonight.”  GB responded, “It’s your turn anyway you stupid idiot,”  and in that one spectacular and glorious instant my brother relieved me of the white-hot focus of my dad’s insanity.  Dad’s glare oozed from me to GB seamlessly. “But I’ll sweep the floor,” GB added.

We ate dinner at the table every evening in my house and attendance was required, as was eating every scrap on the plate, like it or not. Complaining about food at our dinner table was an invitation to a twenty minute lecture on gratitude and respect, neither of which I had even a smidgen. I didn’t fully comprehend the concept of thankful and doubt I would have felt any gratitude for my life as compared to say, a starving child in Africa, had I even been able to imagine Africa or the starving kids who apparently lived there. This was my life and that was theirs. Nothing I could do about it. The thought never occurred to me that something should be done about hunger elsewhere. As for mom cooking dinner, I never considered what she might be doing if she weren’t cooking and serving dinner. My job was to eat. Hers was to bring food to the table. Respect? I feared my parents. Same thing back in those days.  I wasn’t a critical thinker.  I didn’t dare.

 

saltine-heroLuckily, I don’t remember not liking many things on my plate except maybe salmon patties, which we ate every Friday during lent. I hated salmon patties and as far as I know I still do. Mom’s particular recipe looked like little oddly formed discs of hay with flecks of black pepper. The fish was fishy, the dry breadcrumbs, or more likely, Nabisco Saltine Crackers, were stiff and sharp. Tartar sauce, consisting of Miracle Whip with chopped dill pickles, did little to moisten the haystacks but I tried it again every Friday, hoping I’d learn to appreciate the disguise of sour pickles and gloppy salad dressing on my fishy haystacks. I never did. Still, I ate them to avoid the spanking or lecture.

 

Frequently there were tiny soft bones in the salmon patties and pulling them out my mouth offered me an opportunity to express my otherwise unspoken protest of the meal, grabbing my throat and choking, pulling the translucent splinter out of my mouth in a grand display of revulsion. I’d smile and say something adequately reticent, “Yum, these hay things are so good!” Then I’d gag a little and take another bite, hoping I’d choke again and maybe this time for real and mom would have to take me to the emergency room where the medical staff would look down their noses at my mother for forcing such a complicated Catholic ritual on me, the Delicate Agnostic Indian Princess, yet another secret dream of mine. “Salmon patties every Friday?” they’d ask. “Shame on you, you snotty bitch!”

My dad would’ve been violent had he witnessed anything like this but he didn’t go to doctor’s offices or hospitals with mom. Even as the consummate feminist with a full-time job, trips to see doctors was mom’s responsibility, along with cooking, laundry, church, birthday parties, Christmas shopping, sheet changing, vacuuming, sink and toilet scrubbing, floor mopping, homework assistance, parent/teacher conferences, buying school supplies, paying bills and pretty much everything besides mowing the lawn, which my dad did between bouts of mechanical insanity when the mower quit running. Eventually GB took over the mowing but dad continued to cuss and tinker with the motor, shaming GB for causing it to break down again.

Still, he would have been outraged had mom shared the story of doctors looking down their protestant noses at us. He would have threatened to call or even go visit the doctors and give them a piece of his mind for making my mother uncomfortable, questioning her choices and how dare they insert themselves into our home life and didn’t they know about keeping their goddamned opinions to themselves when it came to the personal religion and dinner choices within The Family? Mom would wave him off with her fork; having resumed her rightful place opposite him at the head of the table to finish her meal and preside over the choking drama queen, my own Indian Princess dream replaced with her harsher reality. And, she’d make sure I ate every dry scrap of my hay disc.

Conversation at the table sometimes consisted my dad’s retelling of an event that dinnerhappened at school that day. Occasionally it was mild chit chat with mom, which may have been how most kids my age spent the dinner hour. Mom and dad chatting. Kids eating quietly, grateful for the food and brimming with respect for their parents. Even these unusual quieter meals were fraught with trepidation for us kids. Years of being lulled into a hopeful sense of near-normalcy by rare glimpses of Rockwellian meal-time-in-Small-Town-America were just so much nervous fantasy. Just a glossy image in Life Magazine, opposite the full-color pages with photos of starving kids in Africa. We knew the powder keg of reality could explode at any second, sending dad into an angry, passionate homily about anything from an aberrant teacher at school committing the outrageous act of disagreeing with him, or something that struck an odd chord in his fervent anti-Godism during our daily prayer before dinner. Or blasphemous chants about chocolate custard.

During the sporadic calm and occasionally during the madness of our dinner times, there was always an apprehensive sense of humor around our table. I know it wasn’t just my sense because GB shares similar memories of the hilarity that was always balanced on a sort of tipping point where my family was concerned. It could go either way. We might just pull off the meal as if we were perfectly normal kids arguing at the end of dinner about whose turn it was to clean the kitchen or how it was fair that GB didn’t do the pots and pans. All normal stuff. All pretty rare. A perfect marriage of humor and fear. I can still smell those salmon patties.

 

 

                                                                                                                                  

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29 thoughts on “Dinner Time: Circa 1968

  1. Ha Ha BZ do you have digestive issues? My entire family had them. Dinner time was always the time Dad actually looked at us, and noticed the hickey on my neck or my brothers blood shot eyes. It was often the place where his frustration with trying to raise kids in a world that was full of new and confusing attitudes and morals boiled over. It’s hard for me not to feel for your Dad…and you. Life in the 70’s was pretty nuts. I think most Dad’s were struggling, half crazed, and wondering why they couldn’t get their kids to just behave FCS! And we were all like, give me a break, I’m just having my fun! We all felt it. Great post kiddo! Brought me back.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. bzirkone says:

    Thanks for this perspective. I suppose you are right. My dad actually was insane so my assumption was that our dinners were crazier than most. He was a brilliant man and a teacher so he was always right in the middle of whatever cultural changes were going on. Nobody saw the crazy stuff but us and I rarely ate with other families so I just assumed we were sort of weird. We did not talk back or argue and I was about 7th grade here…afraid of my own shadow. Sadly, I do not have digestive issues. I could eat a kitchen sink and be fine. xx

    Liked by 2 people

  3. TT says:

    Reblogged this on 40+/Single/Clueless and commented:
    Happy Ash Wednesday! 🙂 (sense of humour required)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Holycowgirl says:

    Nice presence here. Well done, you cover a lot of ground. I felt myself one of the kids at your dinner table. I had a different experience. One of the joys of writing our lives out is seeing it less tragic or comic after all, and, away a few paces, referencing other family’s contrasts. I remember my youthful shock that everyone didn’t live and eat the same exact way we did. Everybody else was having much more fun. Then too that may have been for company.
    I’d offer a thought to you about ‘nobody saw the crazy stuff but us’ and bet you’re wrong. It’s a common thing for all of us to suppose, but truthfully the world’s in on the game, just doesn’t speak it out loud. That’s how come the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is a classic. We all relate.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bzirkone says:

    Thanks for that. Again, I suppose you are right about the crazy, as Ilona is about the era of fatherhood. I’ve been working on a memoir and pulled this out today to wrestle around with. It’s an easy piece of crazy-lite. It gets much darker in my past. I may post some of those pieces too. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Like

  6. Joan says:

    So perfect I love your sense of humor and feel like I am at that table with you. I would be the one to get in trouble because I would be laughing at the faces you make.

    This is my favorite

    Liked by 1 person

    • bzirkone says:

      Oh, actually laughing out loud was the highest form of disrespect. You’d have been spanked right away. Back then my face was a permanent deer-in-headlights look when my dad was around. There was always something I’d done earlier that I was sure he’d find out and I’d pay the price. I’ve had meals at your table with your dad that were similarly crazy…by then you’d flown the coop and we heard about your sins. xxxx

      Like

  7. lbeth1950 says:

    Were you at our table? It could be a minefield. Reblogging

    Liked by 1 person

  8. lbeth1950 says:

    Reblogged this on Nutsrok and commented:
    Relogged

    Liked by 1 person

  9. bzirkone says:

    Thank you Linda Beth. A minefield indeed. Thank you for the reblog! xx

    Like

  10. I remember those days and the r.u.l.e.s. for dinner with the family. Love your sense of humor.:-D

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Eric says:

    Very similar experience. “Because you’re supposed to” and “what would the neighbors think.” Those are thoughts that I was able to reject. I’m lucky enough to have both of my parents still alive. I see them still in a similar place. Not a lot of growth. I’ve accepted them and this way of life FOR THEM. That took some forgiveness. I didn’t want your story to end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bzirkone says:

      Eric, I’m not sure if you fully realize the impact of that compliment. I was getting a pedicure when I read it and nearly jumped out of the chair. Thank you for reading it and thanks for saying you didn’t want it to end. There is much more to this story. This is an excerpt from a longer piece I am working on. Thank you so much for reading it and for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Hellion says:

    Had a lot of the same and can identify with you…and I had to eat what was on my plate and all of it or I didn’t eat…however bad it was, we all ate together…something that is lacking in todays world…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. bzirkone says:

    I agree with eating together as a family. We now eat several nights a week with a table full of grandchildren and it is a lot more fun than it was…48 years ago?? Holy crap.

    Like

  14. Laura says:

    I can just see the fork-waving dismissal from the mother. Very well written.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. lee mccolley says:

    Loved it!!! For someone who doesn’t like reading, you kept me interested, and laughing until the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Ann says:

    This is outstanding. While my family suppers were pretty normal and quiet, my mother had a volcanic temper. My father traveled a great deal, and there were times my sister and I were walking on egg shells. I can remember a Mommy Dearest moment when I was five or six, and your description of how that affects children really strikes a chord with me. I’m very happy to have found your blog. Wonderful writing — thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bzirkone says:

      Thank you for your comments. I write a thing like this and then I think, cripes; TMI? Amazing how many people relate to it in various ways. My dad was insane. Highly respected as a teacher and coach and political activist and local newspaper man. Nobody knew about the crazy. Except mom. And, that’s a whole ‘nuther story. Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

      Like

  17. dray0308 says:

    Reblogged this on Dream Big, Dream Often and commented:
    One of my favorite posts I have found on BzirkWorld! Are you following this blog? If not, you should be!!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Deb says:

    Oh boy do I remember the salmon on Fridays…out of a can…cold with french fries as a side and cole slaw! My father was one of those protestants…uh oh. My mother a full-fledged catholic as were me, and my two siblings. My parents were not volatile but we all did eat supper together every night and my mom pretty much did all the same things your mom did. What a creatively written story…you write with such imagery, it was easy to picture all that you spoke of. Thanks for bringing me back to another era!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  19. bzirkone says:

    Thank you so much for reading the essay and for taking the time to comment. Mom was a convert and I suspect those are the most devout. It was a different time…a different life. I don’t miss my father but I often think of how different things were compared to when my own children were younger and how much they’ve missed.

    Like

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