Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dad's Mandatory Family Dinners

This post received an Editor's Pick and a Cover from Open Salon July 21, 2010

Yes.  It's us.  And a cat.
“Get in here and eat this!” 
Mom usually let half the civilized world know that she had slaved away over a hot stove to provide grub for our weekday night ritual of MANDATORY FAMILY DINNER. 
The clash of silverware and crockery being slammed around usually punctuated her general well-established loathing for cooking, but we always ate well.
“Put on a damn shirt, hang up the damn phone, put the damn basketball away and let’s go,” said dad after his nightly bourbon and water and Huntley-Brinkley.  
It was like herding cats to break us away from our oh-so-important kid activities for a meal, and dad cracked the whip buckaroo-style when he needed to.   No shirt, no vittles was the rule.  Bare feet were ok though. 
We never wore shoes.
Every “school night” my little brothers and I would troop into the chic burnt orange and avocado colored kitchen to sit at the FAMILY TABLE that I had previously set with plates, glasses full of milk and utensils. 
We each had our places and never deviated for fear of knocking the earth off its axis or something even more dire.   Dad across from Jon,  Mom across from me, and Chris being the odd third kid born later, sat on the end of a big brown Formica rectangle. 
That worked out best as he, more often than not , had to make a hasty escape.
Dad had his iced tea in front of him, brewed very dark and sweating with cool droplets of condensation.
“Who’s saying grace?’ 
I would just stare at his tea until someone else volunteered. 
Chris, the youngest and, by birth order probably the most reckless, rose to the occasion on occasion.  He’d reverently fold his grubby hands, bow his curly haired head, suppress a giggle and shout at the top of his lungs:
And if dad could’ve reached him, he’d get a smack on the side of his head.   But because I was in the way, I usually got the brunt of his lunge.  
I am an expert at ducking, which came in mighty handy later in life.  Another story, that.
Everything was usually usual.  Except for what happened on one very unusual night.
The nightly ritual began as usual and went something like this:
“What did you learn in school today?”
“Why is (Insert Nun’s Name Here) calling me?”
“Don’t know.”
“Did you feed the cats and the skunk and the guinea pigs and the mice (Insert Other Exotic Pet Here) today?”
“Yeah, dad.”
“How was swim practice?”
“Who broke a glass today?  Your mom told me…”
“He did!” 
Jon and I point at Chris, who just rolled his eyes and loaded a fork with something to fling at us.
“D’ja clean it up?”
“Yeah, dad.
Then, after contemplatively munching his salad and looking at each of us curiously with half squinting horn-rimmed eyes –
Wait for it, wait for it…
“Want to hear what I saw in the office today?”
Mom: “No.”

All three of us in jacked-up unison, hands clapping with glee:  “Oh yeah!

Whilst savoring glistening piles of spaghetti noodles covered in chunky red sauce, parmesan cheese and meatballs, he would describe in extra technical (gory) detail a boil he lanced or a hemorrhoid he vanquished. 
Who knew rubber bands were so handy? 
Sometimes he’d tell about drunken puking handcuffed patients whose scalps he  sutured together as the police waited in the corridor. 
Or about the crazy nuts kid who pushed all the furniture up against the examining room door so not to get a booster shot. 
(Dad’s nurse Marty, a wily ex-Navy nurse, tricked that kid into thinking dad was Clark Kent moonlighting as a doctor but on a special mission.  The kid submitted to the needle rather than shame himself in front of Superman.)
We knew hemoglobin, and femurs, and synapses, and the sizes of big bore needles, and pre-eclampsia and metatarsals and uteruses and breech birth and sphincters. 
He spoke of this mysterious virus that was killing men right and left in Ft. Lauderdale and how he could swear it was changing its nature to avoid antibiotic treatment. 
He lavished tales upon us of extracting still wriggling tropical parasites and cleaning out suppurating insect bites and setting compound fractures that looked like broken tree limbs.
He gloried in all things that spewed, smelled, winked, leaked or had to be lopped off to prevent infection…Nothing was too sacred and nothing blunted our appetites for information or for dinner.  All his case accounts, no names attached, were spectacular, the more intricate and invasive the better.
Dad was a medical genius.  Marcus Welby, M.D.  could suck eggs.
As the meal wore on, like clockwork, my brother Jon, every single night would get excited and spill his milk all over the table.  Dad would then routinely end his tales by angrily sending Jon to his room. 
Truth is, somehow dad thought Jon did it on purpose.  He may have.  Jon is the doctor now in the family.
And he always got out of doing the dishes that way!
Here’s what happened that particular magnificently messed up night though.  Dishes were the least of it.
Dad, all spun up from telling tales, expressed his faux-fearsome disgust for the milk spilling with dramatic arm gestures and the threat of getting out of his chair, his hand on his belt. 
Once the moose was loose, run away.
This night however, in mid-bellow, he froze, half out of his chair and his face clenched like a catcher’s mitt.
Dad flopped back into his chair, threw his size 13 bare foot up on the table, literally splashing down into his plate of spaghetti. 
A thin spray of arterial blood and sauce geysered up from it arcing over the table to gently, like a sacrament, anoint the face of my brother Jon.
Sticking out of dad’s foot was a large jagged piece of glass still sporting part of the Hamburglar decal from a Happy Meal of long ago.
Chris literally dematerialized in a slip stream of particles as though Spock finally got the transporter to lock onto his coordinates on a hostile planet.
Jon sat shocked and staring like Carrie after the prom.  His face was spattered with blood like some demonic fusion of a Pollock crossed with a Warhol, a Dali and a smidge of a Picasso.  
Mom, holding her hand over her mouth, lurched down the hall at a clip.  She could be heard trying to discretely lose her cookies. 
Dad just looked at me, then looked at his spurting foot, then looked at me and said:
“Get my bag.  You’re going to learn how to stitch a wound tonight.”


  1. Dear Linnnn,
    Wow, a family dinner. They say that those missing artifacts of life are going to send this country to hell.

    I think maybe so--

    In other news, all medical students do this--for four years I never went on any social date without hearing about eclampsia, dissection, pulmonary edema, etc etc.

    They would get excited and start yelling and the whole restaurant would turn and watch us. Finally someone would say Something and they'd all apologize.

    So, how many stitches was it?
    Have a great day!
    Ann T.

  2. LOL... I ADORE your family stories!!!

    I 'felt' that glass as your Dad stepped on it...
    Did you do a good job?

    That reminds me of a rafting trip i once went on with my good friend, Barry. We went over a rather dangerous rapid on the Chattooga River... and Barry hit his head on a rock... when we 'eddied out,; he asked me to look at it and describe it to him We decided that 'butterflies' would fix it. He said later that his greatest fear was that 'Shoes' might have to sew up his head. God Bless Him...



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