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Oregon Family Magazine

Mayhem at Mealtime

03/01/2020 04:05PM ● By Rick Epstein’s
When our cat was hunkered down at his dinner bowl, my father would warn, “Don’t bother Mr. Mittens while he’s eating. He’ll turn around and bite you.”

Does the definition of “bother” include marching a toy troll across Mr. Mittens’ furry shoulders? If so, Dad sure knew cats.

But when it came to the way people eat, he was not so well informed. My father spent his life chasing a mirage. He yearned for a family dinner that would be a happy and peaceful interlude when affection and merriment abound, events of the day are discussed, and good food is eaten politely and appreciatively.

Certainly that’s how Dad dines now, because he’s in Heaven with my mom. But we never ate like that Down Here. My big brother did daring tricks, I babbled and gobbled, my little brother picked and whined, and all three of us bickered.

Yet somehow I inherited Dad’s dream of harmonious family dinners, even though I know better. A college anthropology course (which I very nearly passed) taught me that the first humans used to wander around finding and eating berries, roots and bugs. Families only ate together when something really big had died. Then they’d swarm around the carcass, grunting and snapping their teeth, jabbing each other with sticks, and grabbing for the choicest bones or organs.

Take away the appetites and you’d have dinner at our house when our daughters were little. Children are primitive creatures who feed all day on whatever they can get their paws on. So when Mom and Dad try to get them to come to dinner and force them to eat more than they have use for, all they want to do is leap down onto the floor and scurry away to their caves.

Two-year-old Sally would come early to the dinner table, crawl under it, and graze on crumbs and old Cheerios. With hunger abated, she could focus on mealtime misbehavior. Besides her general rioting and frat-house manners, Sally would clamor for whatever was on someone else’s plate and beg to sit on my lap or her mother’s. She’d stand up on her booster seat for half the meal yelling “Mommy!” or “Daddy!” on the off-chance one of us would want to wrestle a wild monkey while trying to eat. (Sally was ready to use a fork long before we trusted her with one.)

At age 5, her older sister Marie’s main contribution to the dining experience was refusing to eat. She didn’t like meat, vegetables, pasta or potatoes. That didn’t leave much. She’d take a couple bites of spaghetti and then ask how much more she had to force down to qualify for dessert. Negotiations would ensue. Dessert had to be cookies or better – or we had nothing to talk about. But Marie would still find time to kick her little sister under the table and goad her to a shrieking frenzy with a few words.

Enlarging the chaos of dinnertime, a third daughter, Wendy, arrived with a fussy appetite, plenty to say, and a special gift for dropping food and spilling drinks. The floor under her chair always looked like Gettysburg had been re-fought with food.  

Then, before we could get ourselves organized, the older girls started disappearing into college. We still have the youngest one “at home,” which is to say: almost never at home. At age 17, she counts the day a failure if she hasn’t contrived to eat elsewhere.

So that leaves Betsy and me. She makes lovely dinners, but with mixed feelings – she’s sad that no kids are around to throw it on the floor. I dig in with enthusiasm as we gossip companionably. I thank her for making dinner and then I wash the dishes. There’s nothing to sweep up.

We’re finding that serenity isn’t everything. In fact, my idea of Heaven would include lively, noisy kids at the dinner table. They’d argue, sing, laugh and cry. For every Tater Tot eaten, two would roll across the floor. No meal would be complete until a tall glass of a staining beverage had been knocked over.

It makes me wonder if Adam and Eve realized they were in paradise when it was time to feed the baboons.