Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sunday Dinner, Bringing Family Back to the Table

We have regular Sunday Dinners. This same type of event that when I was a child was a ritual for many that signaled the end of the weekend and the beginning of the work week.
It all started a few years ago, when I felt like I should have been enjoying an empty nest, more people flowed in and out of my house than I had given birth to.
One Saturday afternoon, I had plans that included only me, a glass or two of good white wine, the dog, and an afternoon of couch surfing and channel swapping between the Sci-Fi channel and the Food Network.
In my kitchen, however, my two daughters and two nieces appeared to be permanently ensconced around a table loaded with snack food. They showed no awareness or consideration that I might have plans that did not include their uninvited and unexpected presence. I overheard one of the girls mention she would go on a wine run and to add to the snack food booty sitting in front of them.  I could see my afternoon ebbing away. The conversations were important to the girls in their own universe, young women who simply must share with each other their personal epiphanies as they mature. I get that. I was there in a not so distant past, but not on that day.
Taking control, I asked, “When are you guys leaving?”  Their look of crushed emotions made the Mommy in me feel like I had to make it better, so I said, “Come back tomorrow, we’ll have a Sunday Dinner.”
I pulled that one right out of the air.  Like many a resourceful Mom, I inadvertently hit pay dirt. Without meaning to, I rediscovered a lost family tradition.
The girls were delighted, excited even. “Cool!” was the first reaction. “Can we break out the good wine glasses?” was the next. Over the next half hour, as I ushered them to the front door, which is less than fifteen feet from the kitchen table, we had chosen the wines and planned an adult and a kiddie menu.
What we did not plan on was that Sunday Dinner was to become a regular tradition combining food, camaraderie, and a chance to catch up on one another’s lives.
That first Sunday Dinner included just those girls and their own family or significant others and has since become a much anticipated event to include other folks who just want to enjoy the comfort of a sitting around a dinner table in the company of others.
The benefits for all were obvious with that first meal. I enjoy cooking and get to do so for an appreciative crowd. They get a great meal for free. I get check in on them and to see how everyone seems to be doing with life in general. They get to hang out at “home, sweet home”.
As in many homes there are basic guidelines for conduct and for conducting a Sunday Dinner:
Rule #1: What is said at Sunday Dinner, STAYS at Sunday Dinner. Those who do attend may politely say whatever they wish, but must observe the mantra, “What is said at the Sunday Dinner table, stays at Sunday Dinner.” Those that choose to not attend are fair game for the subject matter of after dinner conversations while we sip our coffee and tea or finish our wine.
Rule #2: No take home platters for no-shows, unless one has to work. Writing your NASCAR blog, or managing your fantasy baseball league is not considered working, and this is not a take-out restaurant.
Rule #3: No cell phones, BlackBerrys or iPods at the dinner table.
Rule #4: Grandchildren and other guest youngsters do not get punished during Sunday Dinner, unless there is bloodshed or loosened teeth or reckless damage. It is their Sunday Dinner too. Kids play. Kids fight. Kids will be kids, especially at Sunday dinner.
Rule #5: There is strict assigned seating. Really, it’s more like a staked claim on prime real estate. It is a natural selection of where someone is comfortable. As an accidental matriarch, I anchor one end of the table and as the self-assigned patriarch my husband Mike anchors the other end, closest to the kitchen.
            Everyone’s claim on their seat is never offered up, even to a special guest. They just get squeezed in somewhere along the table. To my left is the daughter who could not wait to move out on her own and gave us grief for much her thirty plus years, but she never gives up her seat next to me, not even to her Grandmother. She once said to my mother-in-law as she began to sit in that seat, “Oh, no, no, Mom-mom, you sit next to Daddy, this is my seat.” On my right is my oldest daughter and next to her sits her daughter. The rest of the seats are filled in by regulars, spouses and guests. Among the regulars along the sides of the table sits two nieces who are more like sisters than cousins to my daughters.  They may not always have the same place seat but they always consistently choose to sit on the same side. The older one sits on the right and the younger one sits on the left, the same as my daughters.  One of the nieces had to be at work for one of our Sunday Dinners and her fiancé asked if he could come without her. We were flattered while she felt left out. He still comes without her when she has to work and we do make her a take-home plate.
            Other benefits of Sunday Dinner surfaced over time. My oldest granddaughter learned the etiquette of a proper place setting. Resistant at first, she now understands the value of having enough silverware and its proper placement at everyone’s plate. She takes so much pride in this task that she keeps a printout of silverware placements folded up in the silverware drawer for reference. Likewise, we reinforce acceptable table manners with the children, whose often overbooked lives with sports, dance lessons and homework sometimes preclude relaxed sit-down dinners.
Sunday Dinner is about more than just getting together. This is an opportunity to check in on each other and strengthen our connections in a relaxed forum of conversation.  Casual conversation provides the fundamental basis for Sunday Dinner. Everyone feels heard and contributes to the discussion. We have leisurely conversations, never rushed, discussing the events of the week behind us and the week ahead of us. Sometimes we have things to cry about, sometimes stuff to laugh about and sometimes we just need to listen to everyone else’s “stuff”.
We talk about our marriages, the good ones and the bad ones, the new ones and the old ones. We talk about the people we miss in our lives, the dead and the living. We talk about all things considered but not regularly spoken. We talk about joy, loss, grief, moving on, holding grudges, letting go, forgiving, forgetting and remembering.
We sure do like to remember. When we miss, talk and remember things about my Mom, the original matriarch, we get our comfort from her signature fragrance, Jean Naté.  Last year for Mother’s Day I gave each of the girls a small bottle of their own Jean Naté. When we need a Mom-fix, we take a sniff and pass the bottle around the table. Some weep, most of us smile. It is a most comforting moment to smell Mom.
For more than any other reason, we come together just to be together, just to hang out.
People like to feel like they belong. What better place to belong than at the dining room table?
Having a Sunday dinner is easy to do. There’s no need to make it an all day affair, after all it’s just dinner. We plan to start at about 3:30 and invite everyone to leave by 7:00 p.m. This is key, no hangers-on. Also, the meal itself isn’t always a big complete supper type meal. Some of our most lively dinners are centered around cheese steak sandwiches and loaded French fries and chicken nuggets which is the younger kids favorite.
Food is comforting with immediate gratification. It is the comfort of the food that brings us to the table and fills our bellies. It is the meal itself that slows us down to enjoy the camaraderie of being in the company of other human beings as we catch up on their lives and catching them up on where we are in our daily life.
It can fill your soul with a sense of yummy comfort by bringing family and friends to the table together for time well spent and often much needed with each other.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mornings and Todzilla

 Party Time?

Mornings are usually bad, especially weekday mornings. My bones hurt and my brain is muddy with thoughts of waning dreams. I lumber into the shower whining to myself that it sucks to get old, it sucks to have to get up early, everything sucks. Sometimes I say to myself, “Self”, I say, “suck it up”. And then I trudge through my morning routine of getting ready to take on another day.

Some days the household is quiet. Those are the days when a few of us non-morning people mope around in our own self-pity that another day is once again beginning. Some days the household is a cacophony of individual needs for immediate attention all at once, mostly from Todzilla Meghan. She can really foul up an already fouled morning. It’s her gift.

This particular morning as she’s getting ready to leave for daycare she urgently knocked on my bedroom door. I keep it closed to mute some of the cacophony. KNOCK, KNOCK, knock, KNOCK!

“Yes?” I respond, trying to sound more pleasant than tolerant. In bounds little Todzilla, with pep in her step, chipper and just soo stinking happy.

“Grammy, can you fix this?” She is dressed for the day ahead of her at daycare and sporting a green foil party hat and holding out to me a matching party horn that is unfortunately bent.  
“What do you have on your head?” I ask.
 “A pawrty hat.” She answers with an edge of “master of the obvious” attitude.
Sooo much attitude for a little kid.

“Who’s having a party?” I ask.
“YES!” she exclaims.
“Why is Matthew having a party? It’s not his birthday.”
“Because he uses the POTTY!”
“Ah, a Potty Party.”
“YES!” She squeaks. As if to say, “Who hasn’t heard of a Potty Party?” There’s that attitude again. 
I tape up the party horn, adding to the cacophony that only this little person can generate. She is grateful.

Okay, some mornings aren’t so bad.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Leaving the Leaves

Every year I have the same argument with my family. Every year, as soon as the leaves begin to change color, one would think we are expecting a blizzard. The anticipation of how much of a mess the leaves will make is unbearable to them. They linger by the windows, gaze out and watch for days into weeks, seeing and monitoring how the leaves are falling and wonder out loud how and when the leaves will be cleaned up. 

Every year I say the same thing, “Leave the leaves.” Their reaction is the same every year too, “WHY?”, more a whine than an inquiry. 

I never understood the purpose of raking up dying leaves only to expose the drying grass. It seems to me a dumb and wasted effort. 

Autumn is my favorite season and personally, I have always liked the look of a pile of leaves. I like the crunch under my feet as I shuffle through a nice pile of tawny crisp leaves just waiting and ready to be pulverized for their end purpose of food for the earth. Then there’s the smell of moldering leaves, musky and woody, to remind you that it’s almost finished its life cycle and ready for the last stage of their seasonal performance. Why not wait until the show is totally over? 

The best collection of falling leaves is under our maple in the back yard. Every year it is a spectacular transition of dark green to blazing red to a brilliant yellow that almost glows in the sunlight. When the leaves begin to lazily waft to the ground they go from the yellow to a rich tawny gold where they collect in an almost perfect ring around the base of the tree, like a skirt that’s just dropped from a waist. 

This perfect pile calls for some action. I got out the little used leaf blower and made a pile of all of these leaves on one side of the tree. The family is all in a giggly dither thinking that finally we clean up the leaves. 

Once the pile is created I gathered up my camera and my Todzilla granddaughter. Once we’re at the pile of leaves I say to her, “ Go ahead, jump in”, and she did. “NO”, hollers her mother, “She’ll get dirty.” 

Todzilla (Meghan)
Well, THAT was my intention and I was going to make sure that it happened. She needed to get dirty. She needed to let loose. I don’t call her Todzilla because she’s a peach of a child. Her happy moments are few and far between. 

As she jumped in, she giggled, and mentioned how it smelled good. Yep, I was on to something, I thought to my not so humble self. “Go ahead, dig down, throw up handfuls of leaves”, I tell her. 

First she looks to her Mommy and then spots my camera. Ooo, a chance for a Kodak moment. Todzilla loves to have her picture taken. As I take up the camera she has found rapture in throwing something up and down and around and not getting yelled at for it. She threw those leaves like it was confetti over and over, digging down to the ground and throwing as much as her little hands could shovel up into the air, up and over her head. When we were all done I insisted we leave the pile where it stayed and eventually broke down over the winter. 

Rapture in the leaves
Spring cleanup revealed a giant bare spot on the lawn where the leaves were left. I was reminded that this was my fault for building the pile and leaving it. I whipped out the pictures of the captured rapture and reminded everyone what a great time we all had. The grass will grow back.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Moments I Wish I Could Bottle Up and Save

There are moments in life when you get way more out of an event than you could ever have hoped for or imagined. 

My teenaged granddaughter Tayler was feeling that 2 dozen pairs of jeans, an iPhone and her own personal laptop that only she uses in her bedroom that she shares with no one simply was not enough, along with her biweekly manicures. She felt she should have ‘more’. 

A suggestion was made that she spend a day in a soup kitchen. Spend a day of service to others who have none of what she possesses and in order to survive have to rely on the kindness and humanity of others for just one meal. 

Her reaction to that was simply one of a whining, “I don’t wanna”, which she repeated in a seemingly endless pout over 2 weeks.

The arrangements were made, and Tayler along with two of her cousins spent a day in a Camden kitchen serving to the clients who have need of a meal but no means to provide for themselves.
The kids helped from setup to cleanup. They were instructed on security and how to serve the clients;  limiting portions and no second servings. This was one of the initial eye openers for the kids. They live in a world where not being allowed to have seconds let alone ask for them simply does not exist. Another thing that struck close to just how serious the hunger problem is in this country was that the meals were served in 2 shifts of 40 plus people, if the food lasted for both shifts. 

Moment number one: In between the first and second shift Tayler went to her Mom and said, “ I just have to tell you, Mom, I get it, I really get it.”

Moment number two: The second shift starts and while serving salad, a gentleman asks Tayler her name and how old she is. She tells him and he asks why she is there serving meals. “I needed a life lesson”, she says. He nods and says, “Well, you appreciate everything you have, it could be gone the next day. God Bless you.”

Moment number three: After cleanup the manager running the foodservice asks the kids how the day went for them. Tayler tells him she’d like to come back and do it again.

Moment number four: She came barreling through the front door at the end of her long day of service to others and shouted, “I FRIGGIN’ LOVED it! I can’t wait to do it again!”

In the last 24 hours she hasn’t stopped talking about her day and the different types and ages of the people she met and served yesterday.

I friggin LOVE her!