The table was always set, every night, fork to the left of the plate, knife to the right, paper towel napkin folded in half tucked under the knife. The fork was always in the left hand, still is, the knife in the right, and napkin always stayed on the lap. Under no circumstances was said napkin to be balled up, held in the hand or otherwise disfigured before the end of the meal and it found it’s way to the trash.
Mom do we need spoons?
You always asked, one didn’t want to have to set and wash spoons that were not used and more importantly;
Spoon meant jello, or custard or canned fruit or on very special occasions, ice cream.
Spoons meant dessert.
The fruit cocktail single half a red cherry mined and fought over; the pears packed in syrup juice drizzled over the warm Birds custard a half a pear on the side; the frothy rectangle jello, scoopable and smooth;mix the can of evaporated milk, pour it through the hole in the top the moving blender, the whirling teaches patience as the jello orange or strawberry creamy treat takes a while to set. Listen to the roar, the foamy layers settle; see them forming in the glass 8×10 on the refrigerator shelf, shake the dish still not ready, close the door!
Will we need a spoon?
Yes, we need spoons.
Never is the fork to be switched the right hand and turned up in the- too busy shoveling to hold both required utensils maneuver; the knife was never used and then simply set aside across the plate. The knife was to be held and used with every single mouthful.
That along with a hand around the top of your plate, guarding it as if someone was about to walk by and steal it before you finished were uncouth, common and ill-mannered and got you either a slap with the flat edge of the knife across what ever flesh was available, or if particularly egregious, a full-out stab with the tines of the fork. In my father’s defence, he usually only gave you the loud silent stare, a clearing of the throat, and left the stabbing ritual for my mother as she was within reach most of the time.
These things were never spoken, but clearly understood, the social moray’s of the meal.
Among the other verboten table manners were burping, spilling, chewing with your mouth open, using your fingers, cramming in or eating too-fast, and serving yourself.
My mother always served.
There was always enough, but just.
The portions filling, but never outside of the Thanks Giving Turkey, and Christmas Standing Rib Roast were there any left overs.
Milk, the only beverage, salt, pepper, the only acceptable spices.
We five sit and wait as my father brings in the evening paper, and turns on the news.
Noise of any kind was strictly forbidden at the table, including talking…
The news is on.
“I canny hear the news!” the usual single warning uttered before temper flared.
Above all he must be able to hear the news.
In his defense my brother was easily led a stray. One could actually egg him into doing almost anything before the age of ten.
Something this especially evil older sister did with regularity.
“I bet you can’t burp ten times in a row before dad gets here,” I offer.
Honestly they came so quickly I really couldn’t count them, so I had him do it again.
Never once did the boy ever ask to what I was betting, what he would get in return, never once.
He just innocently accepted whatever challenge I could think of.
“ok…I bet you can’t say the entire alphabet while burping.”
It took him two glasses of milk, three attempts but he was able to do the entire alphabet in two long consecutive burps.
Laughter was uncontrollable. My brother was laying flat on the floor as his stomach was distended with the large gulps of air he has swallowed to produce said entertainment, when my father finally entered the dining room.
Silence in hind-sight was too much to ask.
Silence upon the sight of brother rolling on the floor in pain was just impossible.
“QUIET!” came the single warning.
My brother cames out from under the table, proceeded to take another gulp of milk, look straight at me, and giggle mid swallow.
Milk upon meeting a closed throat due to laughing proceeds to exit ones nose.
My father lost it. Unable to hear Walter Cronkite, he roared,
My father then began ejecting children one at a time, the sequence of which were based both on the timing of who laughed next and the proximity to his chair.
My brother has lost his seat at the table first, quickly followed my older sister, baby sister, and then me.
All except one were ejected pre dessert.
With each ejection my father rose and pulled out the chair, and pulled you up from your seated position by the arm, and generally motioned toward the direction of your bedroom.
He never really uttered the words, “Go to your room”
So I didn’t.
Instead I laid in the hall on the floor army crawl style and spied on my sister the last remaining laughter hold out.
I don’t remember what made her laugh, or even if she ever did.
My father rose and stood behind the last remaining hold out.
Instead of grabbing her arm, he grabbed her collar instead.
The collar gave way with a rip, bouncing my sister back down into her chair, leaving him standing there with the peter pan collar in his hand.
From the four corners of the house, laughter broke free.
My father defeated, tossed the collar aside, returned to his chair and finished his supper alone, fork in the left, knife in the right, napkin on his lap.
The sounds of our laughter drowned out Walter Cronkite that night.
They still do.
And now you know the story of the dinner table, the burping alphabet bet, and the peter pan collar.