Sunday, December 2, 2012

Saturday night dinners, with candlelight

On Saturday nights we ate in the dining room. My dad grilled a steak and my mom baked potatoes. There would be some kind of vegetable and an iceberg lettuce salad. The table was laid with a cloth, usually green, and two tapered candles in unassuming brass holders. The candles also were green, sometimes white or ivory, always paraffin. We used everyday dishes, and I like to think that one of us girls willingly helped Mom to set the table, but that would be stretching it. I do know I enjoyed lighting the candles and did so when told it was time. My dad would bring in the steak, someone would pick out music, and then, as the first scratches came through the hi-fi speakers, we paused. Would it be South Pacific? Camelot? High Spirits? As the overture began to play, someone would “Name That Musical” and dinner would begin.

My dad served from his spot at the head of the table, a slice of steak, a baked potato, whatever vegetable lay in wait. Plates would be passed, the first going to me, on my dad’s right, my eldest sister being the intermediary. The second plate went to my dad’s left, to the middle sister. Then back to his right, to the eldest. And I wonder now: What is all this squabbling about? For I can hear the whining and moaning and teasing as I write this. Whatever the vegetable was, I would refuse it, and in turn my mother would urge me to try it, assuring me that it was as sweet as candy. Peas, especially, were as sweet as candy. It all starts to echo and grow and be riffed upon, and now I see my eldest sister has curlers in her hair and really would like to be back in her room, away from it all. There seems to be all this noise. My father carries boldly on, trying to serve us each as we please, always asking if we want this or that rather than just doling it out, and when it’s my mother’s turn and he asks if she would like some peas she says with great animation, “Why yes, thank you! I would love some peas. They are so sweet—just like candy!” And the echoing begins anew.

After we each have a plate, we say grace, then eat. We are to mind our manners, have polite conversation. But we prefer to make each other laugh, and especially want to make Dad laugh, and my middle sister has a knack for this. A simple story of one day in the seventh or eighth grade has him in stitches, falling off his chair. This relieves the pressure on me to eat vegetables and allows my eldest sister to slip away, if she so chooses. Politics and issues of the day are rare topics, though as we get older, things such as Vietnam and Nixon, marijuana and racism all make it to the table, sometimes with the help of company, but sometimes not. Usually, I suppose, it was just chatter about our daily lives.

After dinner, the table was cleared by one of us girls, and this chore was never bemoaned, as it was the lead-in to dessert, most likely a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. About this time the candles became enticing. How slowly could you put your finger through the flame? What might happen if you held a spoon this close? How about this close? And how about we push at that little lip of wax around the melted pool … No, we were not to play with candles, and yet at the dinner table we always did. But only with the tapers. There were often other candles, like the little 15-cent-each pilgrim boys and girls, but they were never lit and could not, under any circumstance, be lit. I have a very dark memory of once threatening to burn a pilgrim, taunting my mother with it, but I do not remember if I am holding the little pilgrim’s wick close to the burning taper’s flame or if my sister is. One is threatening while the other watches, daring it to happen. Was there a quick flame and curl of smoke? Did we realize in a flash that we had crossed a line we had better not?

On Sundays, my sisters and I ate hamburgers and chips in the back room while watching “The Wonderful World of Disney.” My parents ate their burgers in the kitchen, alone, in peace, without candlelight.


{Who knew paraffin was toxic? Luckily, we survived. Thanks for visiting!}