Friday, February 7, 2014

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Asparagus, Leeches, and the Importance of Family Meals- Guest Author Beth Mouw

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When I visit my parents’ house in Washington State these days, we eat our meals in the living room, usually while watching the Turner Classic Movie channel or any of the Seattle sports teams.  The food is consumed in silence, minus the occasional laughter or “Come on, ref!” shouted by either parent.  And for the most part I’m ok with this. 
But TV-centric meals were not the norm growing up.  Every meal was eaten at the dinner table as a family.  When we were young and money was tight, the table was a tiny, grey metallic thing (I say that because I can’t even begin to describe the material and pattern it was made from) with matching vinyl chairs that puffed air when we sat down.  There was a prayer before and a Bible story afterward.  There was a lot of my parents telling us to sit on our bottoms, please.
Then when I was in 5th grade, my parents bought a beautiful, behemoth, solid oak 1875 antique table with matching hand-carved chairs.  My parents have a great love for solid oak antique furniture, and it’s a love they passed on to all of us kids.  So when the delivery men dropped off the pieces and put it together, we all stood back as a family and admired it from every angle, like men do with cars.  We bought some wood polish and went to work on it with Q-tips—my sister Amy and I tackling the intricately carved base, my parents and older siblings tackling the rest.  As a family we polished every oak leaf and acorn, every nook in the rope pattern , every cranny in the four lion paws on which the entire table rested.  It was our family’s baby—our very large, expensive baby.  There was so much space around it that all six of us could be seated and hardly touch hands, let alone elbows.  We didn’t put pans of food in the center because no one could reach it sitting down.  And when we realized that stores didn’t carry big enough tablecloths, we had them custom made.

That table is still in my parent’s house, but it doesn’t see much use these days.  When it is used, more often than not it’s for massive games of Dominoes or Up and Down the River around Christmas time when my siblings and I are visiting.  And again, for the most part I’m ok with this.  My parents are empty-nesters now; it doesn’t make sense for the two of them to use it.  But I’ll admit: every time I go home, I get sad—not just because the table gets no use, but because of what that represents.  We’re not this tight, intimate family anymore.  We’re spread out across the country.  My siblings are all married, and they all have kids (two apiece), so even if we wanted to fit around one table, we physically can’t.  We don’t spend time together as a family, but rather as a collection of families.
I know that’s a selfish way for me to look at this.  You’re probably thinking, A collection of families is still a family, and yeah, it is.  But also it isn’t.  Because when all my siblings have their own families, suddenly I’m in no one’s family.  Which means you’re now probably thinking, But that just means you’re in EVERYONE’s family, and yes, I am.  But also I’m not.  That’s an argument for another time.
The funny thing about all of this is that, when I think back to those family dinners, there aren’t many individual meals I can remember with any kind of specificity.  Most of the meals were interchangeable (meat, potato, vegetable), as was the conversation (school, work, sports).  And the ones I do remember are not very pleasant.  There was the time my dad got mad at us kids for not cleaning our rooms, and he ended the meal by yelling at my mom, “Deb, I hate when you drain the asparagus!”  There was the time my brother referred to President Bill Clinton as “Bill” and we all got lectured on the importance of showing respect.  And there was the time my mom found a note I’d written to a girl in my class in which I called her a “leech” and told her she needed to stop hanging out with me.  I got grounded for a week.

Despite all this, if anyone were to question me on whether I think family meals are important, I couldn’t say anything but yes.  Maybe they’re not memorable, maybe they’re not entertaining, but they are good.  They provide actual face time, away from phones and computers and anything with a screen.  They create an environment—a time and a space—to be a family.  They deepen our understanding for each other by creating common ground—and all that with food, no less.  That’s the dream.
When I visit home these days and eat meals in my parents’ living room, there’s not a lot of talking.  I’ve explained this.  But what I haven’t explained is that a little bit of that “family dinner” vibe still hangs in the air, even with the TV on.  And the reason is simple: I was blessed to be part of a family who valued establishing that foundation, that background, which now unites us over time and distance, serving as the base from which our own unique lives have sprung.  And I’m 100% ok with this. 

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Beth Mouw is a master’s candidate in the creative writing program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she also teaches English composition. Midwestern born, she spent most of her adolescence on Whidbey Island in Washington State and could spend all day on the beach looking for interesting rocks. She is a former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU, and her creative non-fiction has been published in Husk Literary Journal. Rocking chairs and thunderstorms are her two great loves.