MY FATHER’S TABLE
No matter how meticulously the table was set, my father always moved the knife and fork either towards or away from the plate by about one thirty second of an inch.
He worked in a factory making springs and made fine minute adjustments to the press.
He was unable to complete high school; as the oldest he needed to help support his four brothers and sisters.
He always sat at the head of the table and always wore a shirt tucked into his trousers.
As a young child he was a big man in my eyes. But that was because I was a tiny child
and a fussy eater. So there were many lectures during the meal on the value of various foods. Bread was a big one. My mother put both white and “dark” bread on the table. My father ate the latter, my sister and I the former. So soon after the bread was on our plates and buttered he began to preach on the value of whole grains.
Although he had lost much of his hair from two bouts with typhoid fever, he was a handsome man. His blue eyes twinkled especially when he was amused by something. But those eyes could stare you down if he thought you were not telling the truth.
Once I had just finished playing the piano and came to the table singing the tune.
“There will be no singing at the table.” He intoned.
Our kitchen table was a small wooden one with two leaves which folded down. Over the
years my mother painted in various colors, ending up with blue.
All our meals were eaten at this table since there was neither money nor room for a dining table
The table sat about four people comfortably. That just about covered our family, parents and two daughters.
The conversation at our table revolved around many different topics.
Sometimes we were asked about school and told to do better with a lecture something like,
“You don’t know how lucky you are to live in a country that provides an education for you, so use it and get as much out of it as you can.” This was my father’s standard reply when we complained about homework, tests, or anything else related to school.
“Ann, sit up straight; don’t slouch at the table and your hands belong in your lap.”
“I don’t understand why the O’Brian family has to go to confession all the time. The last time I went with Mary I had to wait a long time for her to walk all around the church praying at those statues. That is so ridiculous.” Said, Janice.
“We will not discuss the Catholic Church at this table. They must have done something right to be a religion after all these years.” Retorted father, who was a lapsed Roman Catholic.
“Miss Heffernan will not let us criticize President Truman at all. We can’t even mention the dropping of the bomb that she doesn’t change the subject.” Stated Ann.
“You children simply do not understand how close we were to getting defeated by those Japs. He had no other choice. And furthermore I do not want to find any more of those Jap trinkets in this house.”
“Ed, you said you would put up that shelf for me in the furnace room.”
“Florence, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’ll get around to it.” This was my Dad’s standard reply to just about any thing my mother wanted done.
“Janice, cut up your meat into smaller pieces. I do not want to have to tell you again or you may leave the table.”
At the beginning of meals we were often reminded that the napkin was to be in our laps.
Frequent reminders of how and when to use it were intoned during the meal.
There were times when our meal was interrupted by the wail of a siren. The lights were quickly extinguished as was any burner on the gas stove. My dad would pull down the blinds as we sat quietly in the dark, waiting for the all clear.
We had to ask to be excused from the table. One never said “Can I be excused,” as a lecture began on can beingable to leave and “May I “was asking permission.
My sister and I enjoyed asking our mother to pass “a hunk of bread”. There was a war on and the bread was not sliced by machine.
We never had margarine on the table; my father forbid it. When it first came out the dairy farmers protested and refused to allow it to be sold colored as butter. A family friend used it and I was fascinated watching her work the yellow color bead into the block of white margarine.
One Sunday in August my mother was pestering my dad to take us to Burr pond for a picnic. He continually said it was going to rain; and my mother continued to request the picnic. He gave in and of course by the time we arrived, no picnic tables were available.
We found a nice place in the wooded area and he cooked the hamburgers and mom got the rest of the food out. As we began to eat, it poured down and there stood my father with the newspaper over his head in coolie fashion, eating out of the frying pan!
We all had a good laugh.
Given this background of table edicts, manners and values I have grown to be very aware of my table manners as well as those of others. There have been times when I have had to look away while someone I was dining with spoke with their mouth full of food or food was running down their chin.
Early childhood experiences do influence you for the rest of your life!
Jan, how can you remember all those things? I must have been a very common occurence at your father's table to have some lively conversations. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your memories of you family's dining "experiences" with your father.
Jan, I absolutely loved this story. Many of your Dad's comments were the same as mine only it seems much more so in your home. In the end he raised some pretty proper kids. Very entertaining and informative for the era. Thanks.