Every family has rituals whether planned or just developed over time. When I was a little girl, going to church on Sunday, a candy treat afterwards at Glebe’s, and going for ice cream cones in the summer were all rituals that got passed on from one generation to the next. Supper turned out of those everyday rituals that came to be almost sacred to me.
As I hauled up the hill after school, over the ruts Dad filled with black walnuts to get those oily husks off and so he could save on gravel, the smell of Mom’s cooking made my mouth feel all slippery inside. Unless she was making liver and onions, then my spit-juices got all thick and my stomach tried to get out my throat. Or potato pancakes, those made my nose tried to shrink down to a nub and I had to cover my mouth, so I wouldn’t throw up. I told Mom over and over, those things made me sick, but she thought I was just being dramatic, whatever that meant. Once, when renters still lived in the frunchroom and my family still fit in the kitchen for supper and I was stuck in behind the table, sitting up tight against the wall, right about the same time those potato pancakes hit the table, I did throw up. That was the very last time Mom ever made potato pancakes. She kept on making liver though, ’cause that was Dad’s favorite.
Some weeks it was my turn to set the table. Us kids rotated like that: sometimes working in the kitchen and sometimes in the barn. I taught Mom all about ‘hoppers’ from 4-H camp, so the next thing you know, the table-setter got to put a rolling chair at somebody’s place, and that somebody was the ‘hopper’, which meant she had to get up and fetch things like more milk or rags when the milk spilled. Of course, Mom had a rolling chair too. Dad found those chairs waiting to be tossed in the garbage outside an office building, and he knew right off the bat they were just what Mom needed; she was always jumping up and down from the table or the sewing machine. What better than a rolling chair to help launch her up and on her feet? Dad was super-thoughtful that way. The chairs were a little tippy, especially for me cause only my tippy toes reached down to the floor and the seat wobbled a tinsy bit from side to side.
There were rules about eating supper. As far as I can remember, nobody taught me these rules. Still, everybody knew the rules. Anyways, nobody ate until after the prayer, and the prayer wasn’t said until everybody was at the table. All the food got passed clockwise around the table, and everyone took at least a little of everything, except Johnny who was allergic to everything, so he could say “It makes my throat itch,” and that was the end of the story. He was home free on a lot of stuff, ’cause everything that he didn’t like made his throat itch. Besides, Mom probably learned her lesson with potato pancakes, so she listened a whole lot better by the time Johnny came along. Only after all the food made it around the table, we dug in and start eating. If I wanted more, I said, ‘Deanna, (or whoever sat closest to what I wanted) please pass the beans,’ in a whole complete sentence like that; no pointing, no leaving out the please, and no passing unless I called someone by name. Well, I guessed that’s the way it’s gotta be done when people were busy talking and laughing about all the stuff they did all day. One more rule, which was the most important of all: nobody took the last bit of anything, unless they asked first if anybody wanted it. And nobody even asked until Dad said he was full up to the top.
Dad told me once that during the Depression, a good guest would leave one bite on his plate, just to show the host that the meal was way too much, even if it was just beans and bread. And any guest knew enough to be way too full for desert; well maybe just a tinsy-tiny piece of pie, just a sliver. “If you didn’t know good manners,” he said. “you must’ve been living under a stone somewhere.”
When Deanna and Bonita and I got to be teenagers, lots of times our friends came over for dinner, sometimes even boyfriends. That’s when I realized that our view of suppertime was special. I’ll never forget when my Boyfriend reached over and stabbed the last piece of beef on the serving plate: no asking to have it passed, and no waiting for Dad. Boyfriend must’ve heard the jaws dropping to the table because he stopped dead in his tracks, looked around at eleven sets of bug-eyes, and dropped his hind-end back in his chair. He had no idea what he did wrong, but he knew something was amiss. “Please, take another helping,” Dad said, lifting the plate toward Boyfriend, and even though all over the outside Dad looked just like the good host he always was, his eyes looked like they turned to marble.
When I had kids of my own, I held my breath, sneaked a piece of chicken in for me, and made liver for my liver-loving-son. I learned to love potato pancakes because my daughter did. I taught my own children to sit at the dinner table, say please and thank you, and to wait for everyone before saying a blessing. One day, G-money asked me, “Why does the last serving of food sit there, unless I ask if someone wants it?” I had to think a couple minutes, before I answered, “Oh, the last is for Dad, unless he’s too full.” I guess some rules get passed down instead of taught.