This essay takes an endearing look at a modern American phenomenon – adults with aging parents – while re-examining mythic Southern ideas about family and manhood through the lens of the traditional family dinner. Here, writer Lori Zavada shows us how some things change with inevitable passage of time, while other beliefs and narratives continue unchallenged.
by Lori Zavada
The night one of my parents accidentally butt-dialed me, they didn’t hear me repeating, “Hello, hello,” so in a flash, I made an odd decision. I’m not sure why, but I chose to invade their private lives. I listened in.
It was dinnertime, and I could hear Wheel of Fortune on the television in the background. My parents had long been empty nesters living in our old farmhouse. Dad bought the place in 1976 for $11,000. It was located near the Florida-Alabama state line. He moved us from the typical red-brick ranch-style houses you saw in lower middle-class neighborhoods in Florida at the time. We lived in a neat grid of red brick homes, bright green lawns, billowing clotheslines, and single lane driveways leading to one-car garages. Our neighborhood had a sidewalk and a designated bus stop, and all of us kids pedaled our bikes on asphalt streets all day long on Saturdays. The farmhouse was the complete opposite.
When Dad brought our family to the place, we had to enter through the back door by climbing up a stack of cinder blocks because the front door didn’t open. The grass had to be bush hogged twice before we could call it a yard. There was a pasture next door, and our bus stop was at a telephone pole – yes, a telephone pole — alongside a red dirt road. My brothers were too young to have an opinion, but Mom and I felt doomed, our mouths agape. I was twelve and about to start sixth grade at a middle school where all the neighborhood kids were going. Then we moved to this heap. My gleeful father stood back taking in all the potential in the rural fixer upper, and I didn’t want to steal his thunder, but inside I was pleading for God to save me. Dad renovated quite a bit over the years using extra materials from his construction jobs where he worked as a self-employed master carpenter. He did a lot of remodeling jobs landing most of them by word-of-mouth. Walls came down, and paint went up. A wood burning stove went in, old carpet came out. I suppose the best part was the new dishwashing machine he bought at the Sears scratch-and-dent store. I felt like I might be accepted into the group of girls who wore Etienne Aigner shoes instead of Thom McAns like me, by flippantly saying, “Oh yeah, last night while loading the dishwasher . . .” Eventually, we had what HGTV now calls “an open floor plan.” I could see my parents sitting there tonight at the same six-person dining room table that was in the house when I was a teenager. A large rustic porch was just outside the front door.
A movie reel circled in my head showing Dad hunched over his plate, elbows on the table, a fork in one hand, a piece of bread in the other. I could see him feeling content as he search for the next good bite. A good meal was how you made a Southern man happy, and Mom was good at it. Silverware gently pinged their plates as my parents scooped and scraped at food. I was pretty sure it was sweet tea I heard pouring into their glasses. Also a Southern thing, you drink sweet tea with every meal except breakfast. Dad always gave his glass a rattle when he was down to the last drop, motioning Mom for a refill. My mind drifted back to all the mandated family dinners at that table.
“Pass me that cornbread.”
Wheel . . . of . . . fortune! Vanna, what’s our first category?
When we were kids, my dad ordered us to be seated at the specified dinnertime. My dutiful mother always had dinner on the table as soon as Dad got home. I’m not sure how she timed it when no one had a cell phone to text, “on my way.” Construction was hot, dirty work, and when Dad pulled into the driveway and blew his truck horn, my brothers had better run outside and open the gate so Dad didn’t have to. Once inside, Dad shucked his boots, washed up and headed straight to the table. We were not excused during the meal even to go to the restroom. TV was never on in the background. If the phone rang, we didn’t answer it. And of course, we had to clean our plates. Dinnertime was sacred, dedicated family time. We were expected to join in conversation, and it was always best if we spoke using the right tone and expression, though we never really knew what was right or wrong. If Dad had a bad day, it was highly likely he’d get riled at something. In large part, we had to fake it a lot. Over time, all three of us children improved our conversation abilities and kept arguments at bay. One of the main things we discussed was design ideas for the old house. Dad listened and used a lot of our ideas even if they were difficult. He really wanted the old house to be our house.
As we grew up to be teenagers, disfavor began to fester in each one of us about the dinnertime mandate. No longer lost on innocent youthful minds, the forced routine became a big fat chore. It also became a secret. In other homes, our friends weren’t going through this antiquated ritual nor were they discussing windows and doors, or carpet and paint colors over dinner. Some of them had laid-back hippie parents who had no rules, and some were children to entrepreneurs or professional parents who were often working at dinnertime. More mothers were working and divorce was on the rise, and both instances were breeding a generation of latchkey children. The 1970s mother was evolving into a worldly woman in stark contrast to women like my stay-at-home mom who cooked a meat, two vegetables, and a bread every evening. Me and my brothers envied these kids whose parents were too busy to eat with them because they were free to make their own plans. A newfound freedom meant a lot of them were skipping dinner to hang out with friends, some had boyfriends and girlfriends, others ate fast food, or munched on a diet of Sprite and cheese curls while listening to the radio. My dad wasn’t having it.
Dad was going to teach us the same hard lesson ingrained in his youth: we didn’t have to like it, but we damn sure had to do it. That’s probably why he also made us get up before dawn during summer vacations to work in a large garden. His dad was a farmer, and he believed that growing your own food and eating it at the dinner table was the direct reward for an honest day’s work. It was also a time for each person to prove his or her worth by being an active member in the family. Dinnertime reaffirmed that a man’s home was in order. On another level, it meant that his life was in order and that he was someone to be respected. Our family had one toe in agrarian life and another in industrialized society.
Dad felt threatened by a shift in societal behaviors. He was holding on to a part of southern culture that was beginning to fade. He was holding on to his family heritage by doing something that his forefathers considered central to the family unit. He drove home the lesson that we should always show up. We should be there for each other. We should care. Ironically, Dad was trying to run a democratic household, but the only way he knew to implement it was by forcing the dinnertime structure on us. The whole situation was deep, and years later, I finally understood why. Family is important even among those who don’t get along all the time. Individualism isn’t bad, but siloed families can become divided and lack cooperation. When you’re older, that disconnect can leave you feeling like a dry leaf tossed about by a cool autumn wind and left to crumble on the ground. Dad was teaching us responsibility and how to be good human beings: don’t be wasteful, be respectful, have a sense of duty, be loyal, don’t be afraid to work, and always contribute. I’ve applied these lessons in relationships, during my college years, and at many jobs over the years. I often wonder if kids today are learning these lessons. I can’t think of one family that sits down together every evening for dinner without interruption until each person is finished eating. It’s quite a selfless act.
As I listened on the phone that night, I was reminded of the car tags that were so popular in the 1970s: “The family that prays together stays together.” In our case, it would have read: “The family that eats together stays together.”
I’m in my mid-fifties now, and in my lifetime, I’ve never seen our world so divided. I think dad’s dinnertime mandate could help a lot of families rediscover basic practices like manners, patience and in the end, love and acceptance.
OK, Leonard, spin that wheel. Click, click, click. Look at that! A vacation to Hawaii!
“I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii,” Mom said.
Other than the television, the room fell silent. Dad scraped more food onto his fork and rattled his glass more gently than he used to. I heard Mom’s chair push back as she dutifully went for the tea pitcher to refill his glass. High school sweethearts from a little country school in Evergreen, Alabama, my parents have now been married for more than fifty-five years. I thought back to all those weekends that Dad dedicated to the old farmhouse using ideas we discussed over dinner. I thought about the dedication my mom had for preparing a good family meal every night. I thought about how my brothers and I learned to contribute to dinner conversation and be active members of a family unit.
Before I hung up the phone, a flood of lessons came back to me making me feel grateful for a dad who cared enough to “make” me attend family dinnertime each night.
Lori Zavada is a writer for a nonprofit human services organization. She lives on the Gulf Coast with her husband, two dogs, and two rescued cats. She enjoys a quiet, simple life, and often goes camping and kayaking. She also enjoys animals, nature, reading, music, exercising, and writing. She is a graduate of the University of West Florida, and her work has been published in USA Today, Emerald Coast Review, Tallahassee Family, and Bella magazines. Visit her at lorizavada.com.