Our families were polar opposites in terms of dinnertime rules.
Butch’s family ate promptly at 6 pm every night just as the evening news came on TV. They were required to eat quietly so their father could hear the news. Imagine four kids, three of them girls, eating in silence. They have lots of stories about violations of the silent dinner rule. The sister just older than Buth was his big-time buddy. She liked to get him to laugh during dinner. If he made too much noise he would be sent away from the table. Her favorite ploy would be to chew up her food and then, sitting across from him at the table, open her mouth and show him her chewed up food. He would lose it and be sent away from the table every time. She would occasionally do that when they were adults and he would still lose it. We just didn’t send him away from the table anymore. He was often sent away from the table to get a shirt because he would try to show up at the table on hot summer evenings without one. To show who was the boss, he ate without a shirt for weeks after we were married and moved to Texas. His dad never knew, but it was still satisfying.
When I was young and we lived in Albuquerque, dinner was a great time in my family. We talked about school and our friends and enjoyed one another. We had a large, circular lazy-Susan in the middle of the table that spun constantly as all of us shared its contents. We ate at a restaurant regularly and were required to behave like ladies and gentlemen. As my parent’s marriage disintegrated and my father became more discontented, dinner at our house more resembled a war zone. He would pick someone each night to be the recipient of a hateful verbal assault. It was a bit like Russian Roulette waiting to see who would be that night’s target. Eventually, we stopped eating together. My parents would serve themselves and eat in front of the TV while the kids would have a free-for-all at the table. I remember the first time Butch came to dinner. He was wearing slacks and a tie. He assumed that just because we lived in a nice neighborhood we were civilized. After my parents (who didn’t bother to eat with us even though I had a guest) got their food and left the table, the bedlam ensued. Butch just sat there staring at us. One of my brothers finally told him that if he wanted anything to eat he had better get some before it was gone.
When we were still in high school, he was unloading trucks a couple of days per week. He was slated to graduate early but stuck around after we started dating to graduate in June with me. It didn’t really matter if he missed a couple days of his all-electives last semester. It seemed very romantic to have him come by for breakfast at 2 in the morning. I would make his lunch too. This consisted of dumping a loaf of bread out on the counter, putting jelly on half and peanut butter on the other half and sticking it all back in the bread bag. He would eat all that during the day plus four oranges and an entire package of Oreos. And he never gained an ounce. After we were married, we tried to have dinner at the table together every night we could. Manners were required, but not silence. Sports and jobs interrupted that schedule over the years, but it was still our goal that our family would dine together. We had breakfast in bed for birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I looked forward to cooking a yummy breakfast on weekends when we were both off or had late starts. For months after he died, I lived on protein bars and shakes and pre-packaged salads. If I had something hot, it was leftovers someone sent home with me. My daughter-in-law was especially worried that I would not eat so they invited me over all the time and sent me home with food. I have yet to eat at the table unless I have guests.
The dining table immediately becomes a minefield after the loss. Every meal is a reminder that they are gone. While the kitchen eventually empties of their favorites and things we would never eat ourselves, nothing will fill the empty chair. There will inevitably be lots of eating alone. Why did we cook before? Did we cook for them and just eat because it was there? Did we cook together? Did they cook for us, leaving us adrift without them? The pleasure of breaking bread together is gone. Now there is just the requirement to eat to stay alive. How do you even shop and cook for one, and why? What do we like now that there is no one else to consider? The fun of trying new restaurants on date night is replaced with takeout and the drive thru. Eating alone in a restaurant sets us up for watching others enjoying one another’s company and a reminder that we are now alone. Our couple’s social network develops gaping holes if we even had one before. How do we find single and widowed companions to share restaurant dining later in life? Where is the balance between assuming a more active role in the lives of our children and turning into a burden?
Becoming us without them around meals is a huge project. We are forced to answer these and many other logistical questions while riding an emotional roller coaster. There is no escape. The decision to enter a relationship with any other person means that one of us will be left to grieve the loss of the other. Everyone who is left behind must still eat.
So buckle up, keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times and remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop….