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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 24-C "Sacred Suppertime"

Dad sat at the head of the table. To his right, squeezed in between the table and the wall, was Paul and then Dave. Mom was at the other “head of the table,” which all mothers know is the working end, the end where the stove, sink, silverware drawer, and cupboards are just a step away. At her right hand for similar reasons, I suppose, was Kathy, the oldest, the sibling in charge whenever Mom and Dad were away. Jimmy sat an arm's length from the table in his highchair to Kathy's left. I sat to her right and to Dad's left, completing the circle around the table. I don't know when the seats were assigned but they never varied.

I think my seat was assigned back when I was a little kid. Dad wanted me near him because back then I was a fussy eater, a food tucker. I would tuck things I didn't like under the far edge of my plate or strategically under my knife. I could get about five peas under an overturned teaspoon. When I would say "May I be excused," (and, yes, we said that before leaving the table with the promise to return for kitchen chores) Dad would give my plate an inspection, and he knew all of my tricks. Many a night I sat at the table staring at cold food and chewing it to a pulp in my mouth but failing to swallow between forkfuls until the wad too big to swallow but not too big to hide in my far cheek. I'd wait 'til Dad was distracted and excuse myself to the bathroom where I spat the cud into the toilet with a splash.

Dad and Mom knew what I was up to, but I think they hoped I was somehow getting nutrients through this abridged digestive process. I was thin and very small for my age, and this force-feeding ritual was there way of making sure I did not starve. Note to parents: Don't do that. I turned out to be a fine eater and I am not under-sized anymore.

We ate supper together every evening, no matter what. Yes, we were busy active kids (now teenagers), but it was a time when the family meal just after father came home was deemed sacred in not just ours but all homes in the neighborhood. If we had friends over (playing in the back yard or whatever) when Mom yelled out the door, “Suppertime,” those friends were to go home. “But we already had supper at our house,” they’d sometimes say. That, however, was not the issue. Dad wanted and expected peace beyond our windows for the forty-five minutes or so that it took to gather round the table, say grace, eat, visit about the day, and do kitchen chores.

On the evening after returning home from Georgian Bay, a day Dave and I had ridden our ten-speeds to Metro Beach, Dad glanced at our reddish-tanned faces while putting a pork chop on his plate.

“You two look brown as berries,” he laughed.

He meant it as a compliment, but I really didn’t get the metaphor. I could think of no berries that were brown, (but years later, while teaching British Literature, I saw that the expression may have originated in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"). I looked across the table at Dave. His face was tan, yes, but it was also quite sunburned on the cheeks. Maybe that’s what the phrase meant...that after a summer of sun and a fresh sunburn we looked like “sun ripened” berries. Either way, it gave Dad pleasure to know we had enjoyed a leisurely day.

"I see you got the tent set up, too. Thanks, boys."

"Dave and I are sleeping out there tonight." I said, and he smiled again.

It may seem strange that a father who worked so hard himself and worked us so hard on Saturdays enjoyed hearing about our care-free days. It may be even more surprising that he did not want us to get “jobs” (other than the paper route that we had just gotten rid of). I was too young, but Paul and Dave would sometimes talk of applying for a job to get enough money for a car or whatever, and Dad would say:

“Don’t get a job. Enjoy high school while you can. You’re going to be working the rest of your life; you’ll be buying and fixing broken down cars for the rest of your life; once you get a job, your time is someone else’s to schedule. Believe me. Everything changes then. There will be a time, when you have to get a job, for college money, but don’t get a job for something like a car. That’s like getting two jobs.”

I once wanted a “mini-bike.” They were very popular at the time, and our property in the country was perfect for one, but Dad used the same argument with me that he did with Paul and Dave. “Let’s say you can save up the $150 to get a mini-bike. Have you added up the true cost of having one—not the cost of buying one, but the cost of having one—the gas, the oil, the tires, the chains. Those things are constantly needing work.” In about three minutes time, I completely lost all desire to own a mini-bike.

Dad’s “don’t get a job” speech was some of the best advice young teenage boys could hear. Do not confuse this advice with an anti-work or “slacker” mindset. The opposite was true. Dad’s work ethic was impeccable. When he retired from Bell in 1989, they mentioned that he had gone decades without taking a “sick day.” He kept a journal, and I know this is true. He had not missed work (other than vacations) since the summer of 1958 when he missed a week due to a case of full-body poison ivy. How did he get that? Clearing the land for the “dream house” he would build on Atkins Road in Port Huron, the one we sold when we moved to Roseville. Dad’s “don’t get a job” speech reflected a work ethic that he expected his boys to reflect once they had to work. It was for this reason that he thoroughly enjoyed hearing his kids talk about “those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.” It was for that reason he smiled when he said, “You two are brown as berries.”

There were other reasons Dad did not want us to have jobs. He liked that we were involved in sports at school and church (church league basketball and softball). He liked assigning little chores around the house like mowing and pulling weeds. He liked us to be “free” for the work we did with him on Saturdays.

But the reason I did not recognize at the time was that he liked us all to be home when he arrived for supper—jobs change that. We were not always good at doing chores for Mom, but when Dad was home, they went like clockwork. After supper, for instance, we all helped clear the table and do the dishes (we had no dishwasher but each of us had a rotating duty in the rotation: scraping and or feeding Duke [it was then we were most likely to remember he was gone], washing dishes, drying dishes, or mixing milk, which was the most dreaded of the chores.) This pattern of hearing Mom call us to supper, sending friends home, eating, then wrapping up family conversation while cleaning up the kitchen was the way life had been for as long as we could remember.

But in two weeks time there would be another “spot at the table”—not the one Mom had blown up with a pot of scorched potatoes. No, this spot was far more noticeable than that one; this spot left us sitting sometimes in silence with awkward attempts to start conversations, which, if they began, were missing a voice to my left. For the first time in 18 years, Kathy was not at the table and her spot was empty. She was 700 miles away at college.
More about how each of us face this dramatic change in Chapter 25


Blogger Nancy said...

I was a "food tucker" too. I knew all the tricks and spent many nights sitting alone until I ate my last pea. Some nights I would even throw up from the taste of the food in my mouth. Sometimes the smell of the food alone would get me. Throwing up wasn't done on purpose but I still had to go back to the table and finish. It didn't make me like the food and of course I was as skinny as a rail, but just like you, I now eat and enjoy a variety of foods and of course I'm no longer skinny as a rail.

I remember when my sister Kathy went off to college. I bet your next segment will bring up some long forgotten feelings of mine. I look forward to it.

I hope you are enjoying the South. The weather map looks like a possible tropical storm forming near you. I hope you don't get too much rain. Enjoy your time away.

19/5/09 7:26 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I didn't "get sick" but sometimes I'd get a mouthful of food and "excuse myself" to the bathroom to spit it out. One of my least favorite meals was "Liver and onions." I hated the texture of liver even more than the flavor.

I did see a "tropical storm" forming over by Cuba. Looks like it will begin to affect Destin until Thursday and we're heading off then.

So far we're having a good time. It started out in the 80's but for two days it's only been around 70, but they had frost in Michigan so we're not complaining.

19/5/09 11:39 PM  
Anonymous quilly said...

Ha! We had liver for dinner tonight at my house and I cooked it myself!

I was never a food tucker, but my brother was. He sat with the French doors to his back and one summer he took to pitching food out to the dog. One evening my dad came to the table after we were all seated and on his way past, he shut the doors, unbeknownst to my brother who palmed a handful of broccoli and swung his arm down and backward, releasing them to splat on the window. As punishment, my brother was made to wash all the windows in the house, inside and out.

20/5/09 1:40 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

There is this growing possibility with the tanking of the economy and the lost hours in jobs that these family times are going to increase, I wonder how those so unused to them will adapt...hopefully in the way your family simply grew up with.

20/5/09 4:47 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

That is funny. Our kitchen arrangement left no outlet for flinging food. It just sat there waiting for my teeth. I don't know why I was such a plate picker.

You're right.
Julie and I are down on the Gulf Coast with our Senior Class for a few days. The bad economy has hit "tourism" big time. In previous years when we came here, there were lines and crowds, etc. Not this time...and lots of "Short Sale" signs in front of million-dollar beach homes.

I do hope when these seniors get home that they have a meal around the table with their families. I think, at first, compared to these care-free days, it will seem "boring" to be home. I hope they will somehow sense how precious that time is in this the summer before they go to college.

20/5/09 8:40 AM  

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