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Come Sail Away with Us to Where Beautiful  Words Flow Like Wine​​

​(This is a draft. Criticisms and suggestions are welcome.)
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Mealtime at the Ellis Dining Room Table:
A Granny-Annie Story about Decorum
My wife has often noticed that when we eat together, I always finish my meal before she does.  In fact, sometimes my plate will be clean even before she has properly seasoned her meal.  And yet I’m not aware of gobbling down my food.  I attack the job in a healthy, organized way, starting with my vegetables, chewing them thoroughly to make good use of the fiber.  Then I  fill myself with the carbs and finish with the protein that will keep me satisfied.  I enjoy my meals while they are hot, and try not to run back over to the stove for an extra portion.  And yet it is true that when I sit down to eat, I consider that my priority for the moment; while I don’t hurry, I also don’t dawdle.  Recently I wondered about this workaday attitude toward meals and reflected on the way I’d been taught to regard dinners as a child.

Call us old-fashioned, but my wife and I have always sat down together at a table for meals, along with my daughter when she lived with us and even now when she visits.  It is a social occasion, a chance to share the day’s experiences, not time to be distracted by television.  So when I reflected on my childhood, it was odd that I could not bring up memories of anything we talked about over the table as a family.  Even eerier, I found a cassette tape that I’d made of a meal that our family had at our beach cottage in the 1970s.  The main course was spaghetti with meat sauce, a much loved dish.  Yet the tape recorded only the sounds of everyone digging into their plates, silverware clattering and clanking.  It was a good meal, I remember, but no one said a word.  Business first, then pleasure afterwards when dinner was done.

And that was the way in which meals were eaten as we grew up in the 1950s -- done and done in precisely the right way.  They began with a short table grace, spoken in an undertone by my father, always using the same words:  “Bless this food TAR use an’ us to thy service.”  Then we focused on the task at hand, which was to consume the food that the good Lord had provided, in as well-mannered a way as possible.  Knowing that this ritual honored God and family tradition, we obeyed every rule of etiquette, and made sure that all of us were following them to the letter.  For instance, none of us were allowed to put our elbows on the table: that is what “white trash” did.  At most, we might temporarily rest a forearm on the edge of the table; otherwise our arms were be in use or dangling unobtrusively beside our chairs. 

And if something needed to be cut into pieces, we held it with a fork in the left hand and cut it with a knife gripped in the right hand.  Lamb chops were a standard entree then, which could mean a fair amount of concentrated sawing.  But woe be it if you lazily raised the piece you’d cut to your mouth with the fork in your left hand.  No, that was “eating like Henry the Eighth” as my mother would say.  To be civilized, you’d set down the knife, pass the fork from your left hand to your right, and then use that hand to feed yourself.  I can recall my brother and sister jubilantly calling me down for breaking this left-hand/right-hand rule, even much later in life when I was a college student.  And even today I cautiously slice up any part of a meal that needs cutting right after grace (sometimes before).  Then I set the knife aside in a safe place, and carefully use my right hand alone.  One never knows who might be peeking in the window to check on my manners.

Needless to say, we were expected to be visibly grateful to our father who’d earned the money for the meal and to our mother who’d prepared it.  Regardless of what showed up on our plates.  True, we had balanced meals: a meat, a starch, and a vegetable.  But the family budget meant that the meat was usually a cheap or tough cut, the starch was usually instant mashed potatoes or a slice of white bread, and the vegetable came courtesy of Clarence Birdseye.  Corn and peas were fine, but I learned to watch out for mounds of tasteless orange “frozen squash” or something that looked like mashed potatoes but had a sinister grayish tint and grainy texture.  That was the dreaded frozen turnip whip, the scourge of childhood. 

Whatever it was, it had to be eaten.  We were not allowed to leave the table until our plate was clean.  In fact, no one could leave the table until all three children’s plates were empty.  Being the youngest, I was a slow learn:  my sister had learned to snarf down any unidentifiable food objects first, then follow them with the sides she found more palatable.  My brother, the sly one, had developed a trick to slipping the nasty bits down to the floor and tucking a corner of the dining room rug over them.  I was usually left staring at the undesired mound of whatever-it-was, while everyone else, trapped at the table by my lethargy, glared at me.  My sibs, in fact, were allowed to ritually mock me at this point, twitching their fingers at me back and forth sideways and chanting out loud in unison, “Wig, wag, cow’s tail!” 

But of course a worse crime was to skip, or at least seem to skip the dinner ritual.  At sundown we were be expected to be in our places at the table, my father at the head, my mother bringing in our plates.  No exceptions.  Wristwatches were luxuries then, so we’d keep track of time with the help of the sun’s place in the sky.  We’d hold our arm out and make a fist, knowing that one fist’s length between the sun and the horizon meant it was about an hour to sunset.  That meant we’d better call a halt to cops and robbers or whatever kids’ game we were playing and head home to be ready for supper.  If we weren’t there on time, we got a spanking, no excuses tolerated.

One day, early in fall when the day lengths were shortening rapidly, I got distracted in whatever childhood game I’d joined in the neighborhood.  Suddenly, I turned toward the sun and found only reflected light in the sky.  Thinking I’d gotten disoriented, I dashed toward a nearby hill, climbed it, and inspected the horizon.  Same result.  My innards chilled, as I excused myself from my friends (who somehow didn’t seem as anxious about the time as I was).  I sprinted home, but when I opened the front door and saw the light turned on in the dining room and my parents and sibs all sitting solemnly around the meal, I knew I was doomed. 

My father got up solemnly and pointed up the stairs.  I knew what came next and was wise enough not to resist, or appear to resist.  “Fighting” his corporal punishment was a sure way to have him double the usual number of spanks I’d earned through my crime. None of this was unusual for the era: physical punishment was the norm everywhere. Transgressors at my school were taken out in the hall and given the specified number of whacks with the institution’s official paddle.  The normal noises of the neighborhood always included a series swocks and howls that showed that some kid had violated some cherished family rule and was paying the penalty.  That was just the way it was.  Even so, I was surprised when my father didn’t just bend me over his lap but began sorting through his leather belts to find the right one.  Whipping was less common, but after all, I’d violated a deeply venerated family rule with religious overtones.  Most of all, I’d been late, and I’d made everyone else late too.

And so it did not surprise me that later in life my family continued to treat meals as business rather than pleasure.  At some family feast a few years back, I was surprised to look up and find every relative silently looking at me in surprise and disapproval.  They were all finished, and, as efficient as I thought I’d been, I was once again the “Cow’s tail” of the meal.    

​Written by Bill Ellis for the "First Saturday Writers." 2/4/17