Raising Civilised Children Part Two: Dinner Time

Self-help texts all agree that family meal times should be sacrosanct. I must concur.

And the tradition starts from when she first spits out (it’s more like ‘allows to ooze out’ actually) that ‘yum-yum-look-what-delicious-butternut-Purity food-Mommy-has-for-you’ and you smile and grind your teeth and try again, all the while chattering like Pollyanna on steroids, when in fact you are so tired from lack of sleep that you don’t care whether she likes butternut – she must eat it already because you want to get this endless day over and OMW you haven’t hung out the laundry yet and now it’s dark and you’d really like a cup of tea but the kettle is out of reach, and eeuh she’s playing with that orange mush and it’s in her hair which is orange anyway so oh  what the hell no one will notice so long as no one comes to visit and looks too closely and sees how inept you are but you’re a thousand kilometres from home so no one is coming and who cares anyway because all you want is sleep

And all the while your toddler chuckles happily about Teacher Di and the painting he did (OMW#2:  another work of art – where will you hang it?!) however, as much as Marina Petropoulos was somewhat disingenuous with her advice about babies automatically opening their mouths when the feeding spoon is held just above their mouths (My cherubs clearly did not read that section the same as I did, because generally feeding them involved forcing that rubber spoon between firmly clamped teeth, which possibly explains why Sean still bites his spoon, much to the annoyance of his siblings. I never did get my pilot licence for cutlery either,) eating all together definitely binds a family.

One of my earliest memories of the children at the supper table is of Caitlin telling Sean he was ‘misgusting’ for shaving off the breadcrumbs to reveal his hake’s nakedness. And so a study of the family’s malapropisms over the years may reveal not only what meal they were eating (and how), but some of their conversations and issues. Sean ate a great deal of ‘boewerors (which Caitlin is known to have choked on);  while Michael was frequently lambasted for bringing the TV ‘merote’ to the table (a habit started to prevent his having to surrender control of all things electronic – even then). Liam, in typical fifth-child-underdog mode, wailed once that he was not ‘being a girl’ (We won’t get into the sexist nature of that taunt by his brothers.) by insisting that he has ‘intestines.’  We also realised one evening that for years Michael believed one could in fact purchase a poetic licence (which perhaps proves his slightly word-sluttish early writing habits) and we knew to leave Shannon alone when she was (and is) ‘prumpy.’

Seriously though, the idea of sharing what happened in each person’s day is a really good one. My lambs sigh and raise their eyes to God in the long-suffering manner of teenagers everywhere when I get the ball rolling with the profound conversational opening gambit of, “so, Sean…what was the best thing about your day?’ We also speak about the worst and even the funniest moment of each person’s time at school and while poor Andrew, who is an introvert and an only child, who grew up with boarding school humour and dinnertime jibes, cringes and tells us, ‘This question is the worst part of my day,’  we really do pick up on stuff that is bothering one another. We realised Liam was being bullied in primary school; sneaky mom that I am, I can always tell when there is a crush happening because that person’s name comes up a greater percentage of time; and the act of characterising feelings is both good for articulating thoughts and emotions, as well as exploring profundity.

Sometimes it’s just loud. Our present eating area is small and so the din batters our ears as it reverberates off walls and window, especially when the topic of whose turn it is to do dishes arises. Visitors fall into two categories: those who stare in bemused fascination/horror and those who plunge right into the fray.

When they (okay ‘we’) are not shouting though, our mealtimes are an enlightening opportunity to encourage original thought as there is often fierce debate, egged on by Andrew’s terrible Devil’s Advocate stirring of the proverbial pot (no pun intended). It’s a perfect time to point out stereotyped views and challenge  the prejudices they encounter when they are away from us. We can extrapolate values from real events and, because we are around a table, we are all teachers. One interesting social norm that Andrew challenged once was in fact about hierarchy when someone insisted he sit at the ‘head’ of the table wherupon he humbly took a place in the middle.

It’s not always stylised dialogue however. We have been treated to endless Grade 4 jokes (seven times), random musings such as Lizzy declaring Goth-like with her hair covering her face, that she misses her guitar, bizarre utterances from Shannon of the mother-ship variety and the constant chidings from embarrassed teens not to comment on their friends’ Facebook walls and other such parental behaviour I have perpetrated which constitutes attacks on their social standing, as well as how generally ‘uncool’ I am. Sometimes they merely smile indulgently and mimic Brandon Berg’s ‘Housewives of Constantia Hills’ character who speaks in a superciliously whiney  tone  that is nothing like me; I swear, Trish. Besides, I think there is nothing wrong with keeping a tissue in one’s sleeve!

Load shedding hasn’t spoilt this family time for us because thanks to a pair of Carrol Boyes candlesticks (a gift for my fiftieth birthday and probably more valuable than the table itself) and Shannon’s unshackled pyromania, we still have light for the occasion (Table View being so beloved by Eskom that we are always off at 18:00.)

Fussy eaters abound, from Mika, who only eats meat and bananas, to Liam who sometimes has food with his tomato sauce. Apparently Shannon dislikes chicken (according to her friend’s father) and Michael is the king of rearranging stew on a plate to not only make it appear that he has eaten something, but to destroy any likelihood of its being able to be put back in the bowl, let alone be recognized as edible ever again. But one should be grateful that he has graduated from flicking baked beans onto the top cupboard when I wasn’t looking or hiding chicken pieces (What is it with the poor fowl?!) in the pot plant. Lizzy is gluten intolerant and Sean hates mayonnaise.  No one really likes salad except Andrew, but he only eats the lettuce. The Labrador, however, although she shouldn’t because she is diabetic, eats anything – from her quiet place under the dining room table.

No one would mistake us for the uber-wholesome Waltons, that is for sure. Our Sean-Boy, at twenty-two, now believes he is above the no-cellular-device-at-the-table rule, while Caitlin has usurped my role in the kitchen (amidst clamorous protest from me naturally!) She always did play Officer of the Deck to my Captain when she was little, repeating my calls to the others to ‘come to the table;’ ‘go and bath;’ or ‘make their beds’ Now she corrects their manners, frowns at me and makes better meals than me. (But don’t tell her I said that.) The squabbling abounds, despite her best intentions and my reminding her I am in fact present to correct poor etiquette. Besides washing-up injustice, the urchins complain about their siblings tickling their feet from underneath the table; making slurping sounds or scraping their utensils on their plates or against their teeth (There is a phobia about such things, called misophonia I believe- we have a few such phobics). They moan about their neighbour ‘flying’ with her elbows and others not listening to their story. I aim to referee the melee, but at times I am as effective as John McEnroe’s Wimbledon line judges.

‘Can we have some decorum,’ I pleaded one night.

‘What is ‘decorum?’ enquired a wit.

I gave up, depressed at the standard of private schooling and my family’s vocabulary.

But seriously, shared family meals are a must. If you have the intestines for the broil.

Bon appetit.

picture from janeaustensworld.wordpress.com