Mary Heather Noble
All great change in America begins at the dinner table. –Ronald Reagan
My father used to tell me, when I was little and didn’t want to eat my peas, that when I was all grown up and had a house of my own, I could make whatever I wanted for dinner. When I was all grown up, he said, I could even choose not to eat all the food on my plate. But as long as I was living under his roof, I would not be excused from the dinner table until my plate was clean. Clean, as in every last morsel gone, every crumb pressed into my fork and eaten.
We had frequent conflict in this matter. Every other week, some vegetable (brussels sprouts) or main dish (cream chipped beef on toast) would become an oral obstacle for me, and my father and I would find ourselves in a standoff. No matter how widely I dispersed my peas or segregated the mushiest innards of a turkey pot pie to the edges of my plate, he always made me scrape it up and eat it.
“But, why do I have to eat it all?” I would ask.
“Because I said so,” my father answered sternly.
My mother favored a more practical approach. If there was something she was serving for which we didn’t care, she scooped a tiny “no-thank-you-serving” onto the plate. But my mother’s rule-making at the dinner table and elsewhere in our house was a lot like state law is to Federal law: my father’s opinion always took precedence. So, I often remained at the table long after the dishes were cleared, staring at the wrinkles forming on my cold peas, the melted butter hardening on the plate.
One time—I must have been seven or eight—when the rest of my family had gone to the basement to watch the news, I tiptoed to the stove, carrying my bowl of congealed pea soup, and carefully scraped the contents back into the pot. Then I placed my empty bowl into the kitchen sink and went to the bathroom to wash. When I came out, my father was waiting outside the door and grabbed my arm to deliver half a dozen wallops to my backside.
When I was a little older, he actually fished my half-eaten chicken drumstick out of the garbage and set it down in front of me.
“You didn’t eat all the meat,” he said.
My youngest daughter is a picky eater — to an extent approaching pathologic. Food temperature is an issue. Shapes and textures are often tricky. Sometimes at lunch, she’ll complain that her carrots aren’t “fat enough,” or that a sliver of red skin is still present on a slice of apple. At the dinner table, she’ll get stuck when there’s a piece of burned meat on her plate — unable to articulate what, exactly, is wrong. And vegetables don’t stand a chance of getting eaten if they aren’t firm, with visible crystals of sea salt on them.
My husband is quick to accommodate. He’ll switch out nuts and beans for protein, let her choose a different vegetable. “She shouldn’t have to eat meat if she doesn’t want to,” he says. “I respect that.” Meanwhile, I clench my fists and bite my lip, silently cursing my karma. I can hear my father’s voice in the back of my head: If she had pulled that in MY house…
Dinner time at my father’s house was a serious ritual. The four of us—my father, mother, brother, and I—would sit down, and my father would serve everyone. Whatever he put on your plate you were expected to eat. Then he’d sit down and dig in. He liked his food piping hot, so he worked quickly, hunched over his plate with his fork and knife in hand, occasionally raising his bent arm to push his glasses up with a knuckle. He always ate his meat first, and then his side dishes one by one, sometimes eating all of one thing before even serving himself another. He didn’t like his foods to mingle.
We weren’t social, either. Words at the dinner table were sparse; my father seemed to view conversation as a distraction from the primary purpose of our gathering. If my brother or I talked too much, he saw it as a tactic to avoid eating our vegetables, and we were scolded for it. So we mostly ate in silence, except for the clang of forks and knives against the stoneware, the chewing of meat. We could ask for seconds, or make comments here and there, but I don’t remember any of us really talking about our days.
When my father’s plate was clean, he’d push back from the table and stand to get a toothpick and the King James Bible from the top of the refrigerator. Then he’d sit down and cross his legs, place his glasses on the table, and suck his teeth with his toothpick as he skimmed through the pages we’d read the night before. The cat jumped up and settled herself into a regal-looking position on his leg; then my father held the Bible up high, squinted one eye, and began to read aloud. He went in strict order, Old Testament to New Testament, chapter by chapter, deviating only for the appropriate timing of the Christmas and Easter stories.
We tried, as a matter of courtesy, to appear interested, but my father’s words droned on. I let my eyes wander the room, studying the detail of the mismatched kitchen wallpaper that remained from the family before: the orange and yellow kaleidoscope pattern, the requisite rooster, chrysanthemums, and spice jars. Often, one of us—usually my little brother—would start to nod off. My father took great offense and either snapped him on the forehead or smacked his big hand down on the table hard, startling my brother to a tearful awakening. Mom always chided Dad for his use of unnecessary force, but her diplomacy offered little more than glimpses of quiet sympathy.
Over time, I learned to ask questions about the holy text, to prove my interest and show my good graces with my father and God: “Why were the Philistines so mean, Dad?” or, “How come people in the Bible lived so long?” My father was happy to pause and elaborate on his interpretation of the Good Book. He’d lean back, close his eyes and deliver some long-winded explanation for why things were portrayed the way they were. My mother sat expressionless at her end of the table, unappreciative of the question-and-answer session, but I was all too happy to distract from the lingering brussels sprouts on my plate.
Eventually, my brother decided to follow my lead, and one day, after we’d restarted the Old Testament, and my father was reading a chapter from Genesis, he spoke up and asked a question of his own. We were entrenched in Biblical lineage, where the chapters are devoted to matters of who sired whom, and with which wife. The version of the Bible we were reading used language like Seth lay with his wife, and begot Enos. Or Enos had intercourse with his wife, and they named their son Cainan. After hearing a few chapters of that, my five-year-old brother, wanting clarification on the verbiage, asked my father, “Dad, what does ‘have intercourse’ mean?”
To which my father shrugged and replied, “Fucking.”
When I was in the fifth grade, I had a new friend over to play. We lived in an old, small house with aluminum siding that had faded to a dull, light pink — modest in comparison to where most of my friends lived. I’d had kids from my neighborhood over before, but I was careful about which of my more affluent friends I invited over to play. She didn’t seem to mind my small room with outdated wallpaper, and by the end of the afternoon we were asking my mother if she could stay for dinner.
I should have seen it coming. But this was what normal kids did—ate dinner at each other’s houses—and I wanted to be normal. My friend talked and talked at our silent table, joking and laughing through the entire meal, like she was probably allowed to do at her house. Then she announced she was finished with her half-eaten plate of food. My face burned and my underarms prickled when I saw my father looking at her.
“You still have food on your plate,” he observed.
“I’m full,” my friend shrugged, like it was no big deal.
But it was. My friend looked at me and my brother, then my mother. We were quiet. How I longed for her to read my mind and just be quiet and eat like she was supposed to. Please, just finish your dinner. It’s only a few more bites.
My father suddenly stood up, and for a hot, piercing moment, I thought he was going to spank her. But he was just going to get the Bible. My heart thumped hard in my chest. I’d never been so relieved to hear the word of God in my life.
My friend stared at him, and I could see the magnitude of our dinner ritual sinking in. The smile dissolved from her face. She looked down at her plate with flushed cheeks, and started to pick at her food with visible distress. I sat erect; hoping my attentiveness to the sermon would negate my friend’s irreverence. By the end of the reading, she had eaten enough, and we were finally excused from the table.
After that, I didn’t think we could still be friends. She said nothing about it the next day at school, and remains a close friend to me now, but she never came over for dinner again.
My older daughter likes to read at the table—Nancy Drew and American Girl. Breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner—she always has an open book next to her plate. If it’s dinnertime, I ask her to close the book and put it aside so she can join our conversations, maybe talk about her day. She’ll sigh and close it, sometimes give me the stink-eye and make a face. She doesn’t know how much I struggle with this. I want the dinner table to nourish my kids, but how much do I make them eat? How much do I force them to talk? I dance around this issue, my ethics about food and manners, crime and punishment waging a war inside me. The truth is I don’t really know what a normal dinner looks like.
I’ve had glimpses, though. I went to friends’ houses as a kid, ate dinner with their families. I can remember going to one girl’s house in particular. She had a lot of siblings; their meal was loud and noisy, fast and furious—a Tasmanian devil, grab-all type of affair. Nothing like the church in our kitchen. My friend’s father took one look at me quietly nibbling my dinner roll and said, “You’d never survive in this house.”
Another friend’s family held hands and prayed before their meal. They served smiles with their corn and mashed potatoes. Most of my friends’ families did. They talked, too, and laughed. The Moms didn’t sit silently at the table, blinking tears from their eyes, and the Dads didn’t shovel in food across from them, pretending not to notice.
The year I was in eighth grade, my grandmother died and left my mother an inheritance. She decided to use the money to move our family out of the little pink house. It took some effort to convince my father that we needed a larger home, but they eventually began the search. After more than a year, they found something that satisfied my critical father. My brother and I were ecstatic. We moved in the summer after my freshman year of high school.
It was supposed to be our Renaissance. We even bought a brand new dinner table set for our fancy new kitchen. Dark oak, to match the kitchen cabinets. But at the end of our first dinner in the house, my father pushed back his new oak chair, opened the cabinet, and reached for the worn and tattered Bible. My heart sank and I sighed. Nothing was going to change.
Then one day, everything did. I was fifteen; my brother was ten. We sat down to dinner as a family, and at the end of the meal, my father got up for the Bible, and sat down again to read. He read aloud, just as he had always done for all those years in our pink house — with a squinted eye and a toothpick in his hand, his voice low and steady. Then my brother rose unannounced from the table and headed for the bathroom.
My father stopped reading and frowned at the open book. The three of us remained at the table, waiting in complete silence for the few minutes it took my brother to urinate, flush, open the bathroom door, and return to the table—and when he did, my father exploded from his seat. His chair slid back across the linoleum floor and slammed into the cabinets behind. I jumped and gasped, a sudden nausea tugging at me almost as violently as my father grabbed my brother.
“Dave—no!” my mother blurted.
His spanks were loud and hard, echoing in our new, large kitchen. Then my father released my brother’s arm and grumbled at him, “You ask to be excused from the table.”
I don’t know if I moved or breathed. And I can’t be sure if my brother sat down or stayed there, or if he even cried. All I remember is that my father sat back down and crossed his legs, picked up the Bible, and squeaked his teeth before beginning to read aloud again.
A pious space hovered over the table, and I can only describe what happened next as a sort of rare celestial moment, like a solar eclipse. My mother stood up, and in a voice I had never heard until then and have never heard since, told me and my brother to get up right now, that we were leaving, that we would no longer listen to my father’s version of God. Her voice was shaking, but it was clear, and cut the duplicity right in half.
We returned late that night. The dishes were cleared, the table wiped clean and dry. It would take my mother another ten years to leave that house, but after that night, my father never read the Bible at the dinner table again.
Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, writer, and mother whose work is inspired by the natural world, family, and place. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, OrionMagazine.org, High Desert Journal, and recently received Second Prize in the 2012 Literal Latte Essay Awards. Noble is a student of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program in Maine, and serves on the Board of Directors to The Nature of Words literary arts organization in Bend, Oregon. She lives in Bend with her husband and two daughters.