This is an essay in a series of related essays So, if it parts don’t make sense it is because it is in the middle of the series.
For the entirety of my childhood the whole family was expected to be in the house at five pm. Supper Time. This rule was never spoken, it’s just what we did. I was never told to be in the house with washed hands and a clean shirt. Also, no one ever told me to go to the bathroom when my bladder was full. It was habitual.
One of us was to set the table each night. Plates, glasses, forks, spoons and knives were all required table wear. I learned from an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood exactly where the places of these items belonged. To this day my mother reminds me where I picked up those skills.
We had our set places at the table. Dad was at one end with a cup of black coffee. I couldn’t at that time imagine the desire to have that hot filthy beverage at hand to wash down the food we ate. It amazed me. But all the men in our extended family did the same. Food was to be eaten by males with hot coffee. Women, like my mother who sat on one of the long sides of the table nearest to the kitchen so she could grab the potholders and feed us seconds of au gratin potatoes, drank water. Minnesota mothers are always on a diet and these diets always required twenty-seven gallons of water be consumed daily. This way they had no room for any other beverage or even for food. Rachel, who took the opposite end of my dad and Sarah and I who sat next to each other on the other long side would drink Kemp’s brand skim milk, with the exceptions of special occasions. When we were younger those occasions would bring us Mountain Berry flavored Kool-Aid and as we became older, Coca-Cola, never Pepsi. Communists drank Pepsi. Good Reagan loving families drank the original Coke and boycotted the beverage when New Coke was stocked on the shelves. The devil himself had invaded those cans of corruption. Before we were tall enough to reach our glasses we were sat atop the Minneapolis/St Paul Metropolitan area phone books. This made for an interesting slipping effect if I shifted my weight at all.
My mom would give the nightly holler to announce that supper was ready and after we’d all sat in our assigned seats, we would have The Prayer. My dad said the prayer each night and everyone had to close eyes and fold hands. I had been to friends houses where they held hands at dinner time and I was glad we did not carry that tradition. Though if we did I can imagine there would have been nightly tricks between the sisters to see how hard one could squeeze before the other would make a grimacing peep. I can also assume that, on accident, one would squeeze the wrong hand and have to suffer the wrath of dad who was sitting on the other side of me.
He took a good half an hour to thank God for what He had done for us during the day and to ask for His blessing on the food we were about to eat. Dad’s prayers were epic and everyone for miles around knew of his blessing asking abilities. He always kept his eyes open for them. The few times I was brave enough to peek I always saw him changing his focus from one daughter to the next. And then after The Prayer I would be scolded for opening my eyes.
Mom cooked the supper. Men don’t cook. Unless suburban moms are at ceramic classes. Those nights dad would cook Super Beans. The recipe was easy: One large can of baked beans in a sauce pan flavored with one tablespoon of every condiment in the fridge. No sides. No salad. Not even veggies. During the meal dad would sing the song titled, “Beans beans the Musical Fruit.” I hear most kids learn that song on the school bus.
Mom made a variety of dishes ranging from the simple Minnesota hot dish to the more elaborate meals; things like steak with homemade lemon sorbet for dessert. But there were constants; the salad and the canned vegetables. As a younger redhead I would sit at the table forever calling my asparagus bad words like “butthead” on the inside of my brain until I would finally slither the cold mush down my throat so that I could be excused in time to watch Different Strokes.
I never knew the show was titled that until years after the show ended because my mother always called it Arnold. “If you want to watch Arnold,“ she would say, “You need to eat those veggies, put on your jammies and brush your toofies”. She had a hankering to end all nouns in the long e sound. This could attest to the fact that her daughters named Rachel, Sarah, and Kristiane were also nicknamed Rocky, Sossy, and Krissy. I was glad when I began a new school at the age of twelve and was able to formally introduce myself by my given name as opposed to Krissy, the name of a pole-dancing Fredrick’s-of-Hollywood-wearing floozy.
Later in life I learned that Marti Gras decorated napkins, if placed strategically in my lap, made for a great net to catch the vegetables that I could not stand to consume. When I asked to be excused, as I was always expected to do, I would simply chuck the napkin into the trash as though it was light and not full of the type of nutrition that came out of aluminum with added salt. About the time I entered my teens I realized that one can actually form a taste for plant life, though I would never admit that out loud in the presence of the parents. Giving them the satisfaction would announce me to the world as defeated. My stubbornness was exclusive and I had been perfecting it far too long to let them know they may have been right.
So, my diet was well balanced and fully lacking fun. Except the one time when we was too young to know better, they fed us girls frog legs. Mom and Dad told us halfway through the meal we were eating Kermit the Frog and giggled at the silly naïve children while they filled their grown up plates with simple chicken legs. These days I will reference stories like this to Mom in order to prove that while childhood was a positive and happy time for me, they were not necessarily normal parents. Of course you say, “No one fits the mold of normal.” But how many young parents take their three, four, and five year olds and use them as the subjects of an experiment in “Who is dumb enough to eat green chicken?”
Being as the meals were so natural, so was the conversation. Nothing was prompted and there were no staged conversations. But this night my dad had something specific to announce. It was just like Danny Tanner would announce in a pseudo touching and emotionally revealing episode of Full House.
“Girls, I need to ask you about something” he began. “ Your mother and I are going to be putting the house up for sale and we would like to move West. How do you feel about this?”
I barely blinked. We had lived in that house for almost seven years. The eight years prior we lived in a house a few miles away. We were and always had been locals and certainly always would be. Every other year the current house went up for sale, yet it never ever sold. When I was younger and these real estate endeavors would take place, I along with my sisters and our loyal neighbor friends, would attempt to sabotage the sale of the home by changing the phone number on the For Sale sign in the front yard. I would also make sure I was the last one out of the house before a showing or open house in order to mess things up a bit. I honestly believed if I spread some dirty laundry about my bedroom future buyers would be appalled at the idea of buying the residence of anyone so repulsive they would not use a hamper.
Before this night, when the talk of moving came up the destinations had been more specific, like Eau Claire Wisconsin, or the state of Montana. This time all they could offer us was “West” so I was less worried that the move would be carried out than usual.
Sarah mumbled, “Sure dad.”
I said, “Whatever”
Rachel who was in love with a boy from Houston and convinced they would marry added, “I’m graduating this spring and moving to Texas anyways.”
He seemed pleased with our answers. So much so that the topic was dropped and we went on with our meal as usual. A few bites later I was choking on a carrot from my salad smothered in French dressing. Sarah, who had just taken a class in school on saving the lives of those too stupid to chew, stood up and placed herself behind me yelling “Heimlich?! Heimlich?! Heimlich?! Heimlich?!”
Since there was a carrot where my voice should have been I did not answer, just nodded fittingly. She placed her fists firmly on my gut and yanked all hundred pounds of me towards all ninety-five pounds of herself. (To this day she always makes sure she is five pound less than I. That cannot be in my head, she strategically plans it that way.) It took a couple yanks and then I vomited all over the woven country-blue rug underneath the supper table. “I had no idea that would happen.” She said. We all had eyes propped open in shock. I grabbed a checkered kitchen towel and wiped up the supper that had been on my Corelle plate a half hour earlier.
I didn’t want to get mushy, but, my sister just saved my life. So, supper was over for me at that point and I excused myself from the table and started loading the dishwasher. I was consumed in the thought of how I could have died. I totally had forgotten the mention of the ambiguous West.
When my sisters excused themselves Sarah came to help me clean up the kitchen as it was our duty to do so each night. It was also Rachel’s duty. For whatever reason Rachel always had to use the bathroom for exactly seventeen minutes after supper and was never available to help with the chores. This flew right past the heads of my parents, who by this time had taken residence in the three season porch where after dinner coffee was sipped and politics were discussed. On this night I am sure the topic of Bill and Hillary was avoided and the conversation dwelt on how easy it was to get the children to agree to the proposed move.
I bet they high-fived.