The first time my parents took me out to eat at a nice restaurant, I was nearing two years old. I am sure they were thinking: “Well! This is nice! We can go out to eat, dress up a little, and not have to hire a babysitter. Whitney growing up isn’t so bad after all.”
Halfway through that thought, my two-year-old self saw the waiter approach our dinner table with a large plate of spaghetti. And I ripped off my dress.
In my defense, when I first started eating solid foods, I had no concern about whether or not the messiest meals ended up in my mouth, on my new lace dress, or two yards away on the linen couch. As a result, whenever it was time for a meal, my parents put me in a diaper. A diaper is much easier to clean than an entire outfit. There was no saving the linen couch.
As I am sure you can relate, I’ve sat at several dinner tables in my life. The perfectionist’s holiday dinner table budding with ostentatious napkin holders, glass turkey candy bowls, and the promise of leftovers that will last for weeks. The dating dinner table that usually I can’t wait to leave. The sticky dive bar table that rips skin from my elbows. The laughing Costa Rican table where everyone is listening to jokes about Americans while drinking milk from the cow outside. The suburban dinner table that is used only to fold laundry and file taxes --- all eating is done in front of the television.
But my favorite dinner table so far is located in Burke, Virginia.
We bought the table from a man who tried to charge us three times as much as it was worth.
“I’ll give you a break. Deal at $4000.”
“OK! Ok. Ok. $475.”
He wasn’t much of a bargainer. He also didn’t brush his teeth. But I guess that doesn't really matter. Nobody has
to brush his or her teeth.
I spent most of my life hovering over that table like a fish hook, which is most likely how I attained such perfect curvature in my poor posture. My parents never corrected my posture. They just watched me dangle there as I slurped my soup - my chin almost dipping into the broth.
“This is how we will keep her,” I imagine my parents discussing in their bedroom before they go to bed. “If she keeps up that awful posture, she will remain a virgin forever.”
Little did they know that horrible posture does not stop a woman from developing breasts, hips, and a curiosity about other
In her teenage years, my sister never really had anything to say about...well... anything, other than “I don’t know.”
“How was your day, Alex?”
“I don’t know.”
While I - on the other hand - was ready for my turn. Prepared script of the daily events that must be turned into the greatest one-woman show.
“And so like Carly turned to me and she said like wow your toes are so big and it must be because like you crack them and like because you drink a lot of that 2% milk at lunch and like what I think is like ---”
“If you say ‘like’ one more time, I will be ashamed that I am your father.”
My dad is the diner who says something that he thinks will sound excellent, but just ends up offending my mother:
“This meatloaf is really getting there. Could use some more salt. Definitely needs a lot of ketchup.”
Both my sister and I chime in, amazed that his training is going no where. No matter how many times we pull him aside to remind him that his comments are the worst, he decides that we are wrong.
“All you have to say is this is great! Thank you so much for making dinner, sweetheart!”
“...but then I would be lying.”
My dad is a towering 6’4” and loves soda. Coke. Root beer. Sparkling raspberry Arnold Palmers. If it rots your teeth and gums out, he will be the first to come to it’s defense.
“It has tea in it. Tea is good for you. People who do yoga drink tea.”
My mother knows the basics: pastas, salads, potatoes, and cheesy potatoes. Not until I entered high school did she start making recipes that she saw featured on Oprah
“This here is an arugula salad mixed in a homemade red wine vinaigrette dressing, garnished with white peaches, cucumber, and radish.”
“Patty - where is the pasta?”
“THERE IS NO PASTA TONIGHT, KEN.”
My mother and father often discussed things that neither my sister or I understood at a young age. They lowered their voices, so we knew the conversation was serious. They used adult words like "supervisor" and "co-worker" and "Home Depot". We girls put whole olives on the tips of our fingers and pretended to be tree frogs. I usually kicked my sister under the table to get her to look at me. Then I'd send a stare in her direction which meant: "Eat faster. I want to play The Sims on the computer."
When my mom is gone for a week to visit her family in Montana, you see the gradual change in my father’s behavior. He is thrilled to eat pizza and beer on day one, day two, three, and four. The dinner table is a Pizza and Beer theme park. Come day five, his playground is washed in depression. Pizza and it 's bountiful supply of sodium-laced toppings are no longer fun. His wife is gone. And he only knows how to work a microwave and use his credit card for take-out.
The day my mother is back home, my father sits at the dinner table like a kindergartener who is proud he just made a pile out of mud in the garden.
“So happy to have you back, my love.”
“I am happy to be back!”
“These mashed potatoes - did you forget to----”
“DAD. SHUT UP.”
We eat in our flannel pajamas for dinner. We dress in our best for breakfast. Everybody feeds the dog under the table, but nobody takes the blame when he starts puking. I've cried several times at that table, my childhood cat on my lap. My mother dries her freshly painted canvases on the table's surface. My father displays his homegrown tomatoes on the table, waiting for compliments. My sister searches for summer jobs on the family laptop. Birthday parties. First time boyfriend meetings. Parental discussions. An angry game of cards.
Where I live now, I don't really have a dinner table; a studio apartment in Hollywood doesn't have much room for proper dining. I eat at my desk. I eat on my bed. I eat on the steps of my front porch. And every once in awhile, when the meal calls for it, I put olives on my fingers. I wish you could understand how comforting putting olives on your fingers can be.