Growing up we ate a family dinner. Every night. Mom, Dad, older brother, yours truly and little sister. We ate in the kitchen. Together at the table. We held hands and said grace before anyone touched the food. We made eye contact as we prayed. We blew kisses to one another after saying “Amen”. We smiled and shared food graciously. We were the picture of domestic perfection gathered around the table for the quintessential family dinner.
Except for the TV.
There was (and still is) a TV in my parents’ kitchen. Tuned into ABC news. Always. Inevitably, the moment after we so graciously shared food with one another, Dad silenced us.
Dad: “Shh. Shhh. Let’s hear what Jim O’Brien has to say..”
Me: Whispering to little sister, “I changed the name on my cabbage patch doll’s adoption papers to Amelita Cassie. Do you like it? She looks like an Amelita, don’t you think? I mean, I’ve never known an Amelita, but I think she looks like an Amelita would. If I knew one.”
Little Sister: Eyes wide with excitement, “I LOVE it! Amelita! It’s beautiful!”
Dad: “Shhhhhh! I’m trying to hear Jim O’Brien, girls. We’ve got the 5 day forecast coming up. Then you can talk.”
We eat in silence for 1 minute…1 minute, 30 seconds…older brother is going to town on the olive tray.
Yuck. Olives. He can have them all.
Little Sister: Whispering loudly, “I am going to ask for a cabbage patch preemie for Christmas! They smell like real babies!”
Me: “Christmas? But it’s May. What if you write it down, then forget where you put your list? Maybe you should write it in your diary. Then you’ll remember.”
Little Sister: Forgetting to whisper: “YES! My diary!”
Dad’s neck veins begin bulging.
Mom: Whispering, “Girls, eat your meatloaf. Your brother is eating all of his meatloaf.”
We glare at him. He grins at Mom. Looks at us. Points to himself and mouths, “I’m #1” to us.
Little Sister: Forgetting to whisper again, “I don’t like meatloaf. It’s gross.”
Me: Whispering, “I don’t really like meatloaf either. Can I have something else? Cereal?”
Dad: “Goddammit, girls! I am trying to hear the weather! Can you wait to talk until the commercial?!”
Me: “But, Dad, the weather’s over.”
Dad: “Shhh. Shh. I want to hear the sports. Bethany, what did our boy Mo Cheeks do last night?”
He had me there. I always wanted to hear what Mo had done.
We wound up eating our dinner in virtual silence every night. And, Mom, before you get sensitive and think I’m making fun of you and Dad…I’m not. I personally think silence at the dinner table is a stroke of genius.
Allow me to illustrate why…
The Interrogator was obsessed with death for a brief time last year. One of his friends at school had mentioned something in morning circle about someone dying. That’s all it took for the avalanche of questions to commence.
Me: “Boys, please get your drinks and sit down at the dinner table.”
Everyone sits down and begins eating (oops, no grace before meals at our house).
Me: “So, Interrogator, tell me about your day. What was the best part?”
Interrogator: “Mom, I don’t know what the best part was.”
Me: Animated, “Think about it. Think about all you did today at school with your teachers and your friends. And everything you learned. What did you like best?”
Interrogator: “Mom, I like now best. Mom, I need to tell you something.”
Me: “What do you need to tell me, buddy?”
Interrogator: “Mom, it’s OK when I die because I will be alive again on Easter! And then they will hang me up on the cross.”
Well now. This is really something else. Definitely not what I’d expected to hear.
Interrogator: “So, don’t be sad, Mom.”
Waldorf: “Interrogator, what in God’s name are you talking about?”
Kenyan: “Interrogator, you have no idea what you’re saying.”
Verb: “I’ll be sad when you die, Interrogator.”
Interrogator: “Thanks, Verb. But I’ll be back. Don’t worry. On Easter day. Then I’ll die on the cross. Then, I…um…oh. What happens then, Mom?”
Uh-oh. He expects me to answer. I’m the Mom. I’m supposed to have the answers.
B&B: “Interrogator, I’ll tell you what happens when you die.”
Me: “Oh, sweet Jesus, please do not. Don’t scare these children. Not at the dinner table.”
B&B: “Scare them? You mean tell them the truth?”
B&B is an atheist. Which does not make him a devil worshipper. It makes him a non-believer. A lover of science. A man who requires proof. And please don’t feel badly for him. He is completely at peace with his faithless existence. And please don’t pray for me that he finds Jesus. I don’t need him to find Jesus. I need him to hit the toilet when he pees instead of my white bathroom floor. If you’re going to pray for anything, please pray for better aim.
Waldorf: Proudly, “I’m not scared of anything. What are you going to tell us?”
Kenyan: Unsure, “Wait, is it really scary? Because I don’t like really scary things. I like things that are a tiny bit scary, but not a lot scary. Is it a lot scary? Because I don’t want to know.”
Interrogator: Concerned, “Mom, after they hang me on the cross, what happens next?”
Me: “No one is going to hang you on a cross, sweetheart. That happened to someone a long time ago.”
Interrogator: “So, what happens when I die?”
B&B: “Let’s talk about what we do know. Let’s talk about what happens to your body after you die.”
So much for talking about the best part of everyone’s day…
Interrogator: “Well, I want Mom to have it.”
B&B: “Nope. Mom can’t have it. It will smell bad.”
Interrogator: Wrinkling his nose, “Bad like poopy?”
Verb: “HEY! No potty talk at the table!”
B&B: “Interrogator, after you die, your body will be buried underground.”
Oh, Christ, here he goes…
Interrogator: Troubled, “Huh? But I can’t breathe under there! And there are spiders. You know I don’t like spiders! I’m afraid of them!”
Kenyan: “Or you could be burned…what’s that called…incensed?”
Me: “Kenyan, incensed is what I’m going to be with Daddy if he doesn’t choose his words carefully. And homicidal is what I’ll be when he sleeps through some inevitable nightmares that one or both of your brothers will have. But, to answer your question, the word you’re looking for is cremated.”
Kenyan: “Oh, yeah, cremated. They burn your body, then it becomes dust. And Mom can save your dust. Or let it blow away.”
Interrogator: Horrified, “WHAT? MOM DON’T LET THEM BURN ME! I DON’T WANT TO BE DUST! I WANT TO BE ME! I WANT TO STAY WITH YOU!”
I look at B&B.
Nice work. I mean, truly, really very nice work.
B&B looks at me.
I pick up my phone. Text him these words…
“I will fucking kill you if u use the words ‘worms will eat u’ in a conversation with the Interrogator. U dig?”
He texts me back…
“It’s true. After u die, and your body is buried, eventually, worms eat ur lifeless body. I will not lie to him.”
I text him…
“Oh, U WILL LIE. This is ur child, and u will lie. U will lie or the worms will be eating UR BODY. Very soon.”
The Interrogator is in a full panic at this point. Crying. Hyperventilating. Head in his hands.
Interrogator: Pleading with the Verb, “Don’t let them burn me, Verb. Don’t let them do it.”
Verb: Standing on his chair like a knight in shining armor, yells, “I’ll per-tect you, Interrogator!” *(per-tect=protect)
Waldorf and the Kenyan are delighted by this spectacle. Pandemonium at the dinner table is good stuff for them.
B&B and I put our phones down.
I get up to hug the Interrogator. That’s not enough for him. He follows me back to my chair and climbs onto my lap. Which means the Verb feels the need to climb onto my lap as well. They elbow each other (and me) as they settle in against me.
Looks like I’ll be eating a cold dinner tonight.
Just when I think the conversation is over…
B&B: Entirely too excited, “Boys, do you know what Daddy wants done to his body after he dies?”
I am giving him the angriest of my angry eyes, but he can’t see my face. I am buried under his two youngest children.
Waldorf: Like an eager student, “Oh, I know! I know! You want to donate it!”
Kenyan: “Donate it where? To a museum?”
B&B: Pleased with his pupils, “You are correct, Waldorf. I want my body donated. Not to a museum, Kenyan. To science. SCIENCE!”
*B&B never speaks the word “science”. He yells it. I don’t know whether it’s an outburst of affection for the subject or a shout-out to the old Thomas Dolby song She Blinded me with Science. Maybe it’s both.
Kenyan: “What happens to your body when it’s donated to science, Daddy?”
I reach around the Interrogator, desperately feeling on the table for my phone in order to send threatening texts to B&B. But, my God, the Interrogator is heavy. I can barely move my arm under his weight.
B&B: “Oh, it’s amazing what is done with your body when it’s donated. Medical students get to study it. And learn from it. They use it to learn how to operate on living bodies once they become real doctors.”
Kenyan: Visualizing, “Wait, so they cut you? Like they cut your dead body?”
B&B: Grinning, “Yes! Yes, they will cut my body open!”
Waldorf: “I bet it smells bad. No offense, Daddy.”
B&B: Grinning and nodding, “It will smell horrible, Waldorf! Imagine the worst smell you’ve ever smelled….my dead body will smell worse than that.”
The three of them are completely engaged with one another. Loving this conversation.
My arms are going numb holding these two kids.
Me: “OK, I think we probably should change the subject right now. I’ve got 2 kids with definite n-i-g-h-t-m-a-r-e potential whose appetites have already been ruined.”
Waldorf and the Kenyan voice their protest in unison: ”Come on! Let Daddy finish! We want to hear it!”
B&B: Urgently, “Oh, wait, you know what’s important? Beth, you can’t forget to tell them about my eyes.”
Me: “Tell whom? And what about your eyes?”
B&B: Eyes wide, “About my Lasik surgery.”
Me: Nodding, “Should I just slap a sticky note to your corpse? ‘To whom it may concern: study his eyeballs. He had horrible vision that was fixed by the Lasik procedure. But then his vision started to go bad again 10 years later. That really pissed him off by the way.’? How’s that? Good plan?”
Now my legs are going numb under the weight of these kids.
B&B: Completely unaffected by my sarcasm,“Good question. I’ll have to look into that.”
Kenyan: Growing pale,“Wait, wait, wait. Did you say eyeballs?”
B&B: “Yes. They will probably remove most of my organs. And they should definitely study my eyeballs. Because I had an operation to fix my vision. This is really interesting, guys. They cut a flap off the surface of my eyeball. Then they peeled the flap back. Then they lasered off the appropriate amount of cells underneath. Then they replaced the flap!”
Kenyan: White as a sheet, “Oh, wow, Mommy, I don’t feel very good. I don’t feel very good at all. This eyeball talk makes me feel not very good.”
He leaves the table and walks slowly upstairs to the bathroom.
Me: “B&B, I have two emotional basketcases on my lap. And a possible puker in the bathroom. Now’s the perfect time to take what remains of your audience elsewhere to continue this enlightening conversation.”
B&B: Agreeably, “Sure, Waldorf, let’s go downstairs where your brothers can’t hear us.”
I groan with effort as I rise from my chair, still holding the Interrogator and the Verb. I sit them on the counter and scribble a note for myself.
“Best use of tax return money: TV for the kitchen”
I’m telling you, my parents were geniuses.