After my family grew out of the highchair years my dad constructed a counter-height bar that jutted out of our kitchen into our TV room. From then on, that was the dinner table at which all family meals were shared. And we children, even into our highschool years, rarely if ever missed a meal in that spot. We never ate at our friends’ houses because my parents wouldn’t tolerate the idea. I’m not sure many other families we knew ate dinner together, but I didn’t care nor did I think to inquire about what other families did. Those are the years where you think everyone’s family is like yours and all parents are “parents” that come from a homogenous pool of “adults”. Perhaps most families just “winged” their dinner activities, but my family didn’t. We needed routine. All we had was routine. I think we were incapable of winging anything because no one had any coping skills to deal with anything that deviated from the norm. From the schedule. From our… routine. 

Dinner was at 5:15 every day. My dad pulled into the driveway at five and came through the garage entrance into the foyer. He set his briefcase down at his desk and yanked at his tie, grimacing, until it loosened enough to slip over his balding head. And between 5:00 when he got home, and 5:10 when dinner was almost ready, I enjoyed the single increment in my day when the household switched from military functions to an organic pulse. I could smell my dad’s sweat from the drive home in his hot, Florida-sun baked car. He didn’t smell bad. He just smelled like my dad. And just before dinner the house smelled like him and marinara sauce. Or him and the onions and garlic salt my mom mixed in with the french-cut beans. He was never part of the pre-dinner strain the house felt. 

Dinner was preceded by a nagging block of time where my mom stirred and chopped things and kneaded ground beef in plastic bowls while my sisters and I hid in our rooms to isolate ourselves from her toil. She often slammed the stirring spoon onto the brushed steel stove top and flung the cabinet doors closed as hard as she could sending bullets of sound cracking forth into our bedrooms. Her percussive monologue went out to no one in particular, and so the combustible air she brewed continued to build up in the kitchen while our dinner cooked. For over a decade, it was on this stage that she tramped the line between dutiful mother and pissed-off housewife. 

At t-minus twenty minutes the table needed to be set. Punishment would ensue if someone didn’t fulfill this obligation to her, but we’d “offer” her our help as if we cared. One of us, out of mercy to the other two girls, would sneak into the kitchen without saying a word and take it upon one’s self to navigate the front lines. Glasses were filled with water. There was no soda and no juice during meals. Five paper napkins came off the stack and were folded in half. Plastic placemats were slid into their respective places on the formica surface. Forks. Spoons. Butter knifes we never used. (Butter was rarely on the table.) The process was fast. Efficient. And always silent. Bonus points if you took five plastic plates out of the cabinets and stacked them by the stove so my mom could load them with the meal of the day. It was understood that the chore was meant to repay my mom for serving us. Not because it was something that simply needed to be done so the family could eat. Everything was code. Most domestic chores built up an emotional debt that had to be repaid to her somehow in the currency of her choosing. In this case it was by the folding of paper napkins and careful placement of silverware. And timing was everything. Sneak out of your bedroom and start by rolling open the heavy silverware drawer when dinner was cooked just enough and just before she bellowed that no one would help her.

Dinners themselves exist to me now as a stack of countless cumulative hours at that table with no specific memories. It was beans and porkchops and plates on the table–each night’s still life slightly altered from the previous one.  We used that intimate space, barstools just inches from each other, to stay as far away from each other as possible. We simply ate together. We didn’t ask each other questions. We didn’t laugh. We just stabbed and scooped things from our plates and loaded them onto our tongues. Dinner was grating forks and clinking spoons and my dad gulping ice water. It was the beads of steam inside the lid of the crock pot that contained our french cut beans. We feared conversation. Conversation meant conflict. And as long as were silent, we could pretend. The meals around the table that everyone seems to value were real to us. But the air was as flat as the photograph we resembled, barren of anything but the warm calories we consumed. 

The subtext to the silence was seasoned by the fact that we knew that my mom was counting her calories. Every. Single. One. This way the food couldn’t be arbitrary. Neither was it secondary to conversation. It was all there was. Calorie by calorie. Nearly saltless. The guilt my mother felt for needing, wanting, and eating food silently bled across the table towards us for years making the food itself far more significant than it ever should have been. Food was to be feared because of its calorie content or potential damage to our bodies. Pizza on Wednesday nights meant a half a roll of paper towels was used to blot the grease from itst surface. 

Food was not a source of emotional bonding. It isolated us, obligating us to her for preparing it and serving it to us. There was no simplicity in the kitchen. It was a complex system of rules and codes, not aromas and recipes. We didn’t crave standing by her side and learning to cook meatballs or fish or casseroles. She never taught us a single recipe. She didn’t know any or use any. Meals were utilitarian, and to this day I’d never complain about what she provided.  But I miss the time I think we could have spent. But she wasn’t emotionally capable of using the kitchen as a platform upon which to bond. It was the staging area for her frustration, and it took me years to learn not to associate meals with guilt and obligation and high stress. 

Most meals were cut short by the sound of rushing water as my dad rinsed his plate in anticipation of ours being empty. We felt rushed to clean our plates. Dinner was a project to be finished. If he stayed at the table in polite response to our aggravated commentary about his impatience, he’d sit in front of his empty plate and fidget or stay eerily still, controlling his gestures out of duty. If I wasn’t convinced at that point that meals were simply meals, I knew it years later when I received a clandestine note for Thanksgiving from my father that my mom didn’t know about. (She’d forbid him to contact me.) In it was twenty dollars, and with his calligraphy pen he specified that I buy myself a nice meal for that day. The actual food. He tried. 

Today I began something new for myself. I put together a table that I bought from Target, and it’s the first dining room table I’ve ever owned. It might or might not become a significant place, but I’m not worried about it. Gone are the years of military force and routine to achieve the picture of togetherness and gone are the expectations that robbed the moments of their authenticity. It’s not about the table. The food. The calories. Who is present. You can have food and proximity, but I’ve learned that those are really the arbitrary details. After the massive quantity of family years, I have nothing. That was the first generation of my “family.” For the second generation—the one I choose—I’ve burned the book and abandoned the code. I’m waiting for just about nothing. The moments will come around. They’ll become memories. Maybe around this table. Maybe not.  I expect to be pleasantly surprised.