You’re no doubt all familiar with the adage, “the child becomes the parent”—and to be perfectly honest, I always thought that was a huge pile of road apples. But ever since the ‘rents and I decided to become “roomies” this year I’m starting to believe that my initial assessment of that maxim was a tad harsh.
When I reflect on my days as a youth as to how dinnertime was merely an inconvenience to keep me away from either playing with my friends or placing myself in a state of stupor watching TV, it really makes me laugh because my folks were always lecturing and pressing upon me the importance of not bolting my food, taking time to chew and swallow, etc. As a kid—you don’t care about any of that. All you know is that time is a precious and valuable commodity, and you can’t waste a moment of it eating meat loaf while your buddies are outside (why was it that your friends’ dinner time was always different from yours?) getting up a wiffle ball game or even—heaven forfend!—The Wild Wild West was coming on in 10 minutes, ferchrissake!
Forty years later, the situation has radically changed. I look forward to sitting down at night with my folks, enjoying a hearty meal (I know I’ve mentioned this many times on the blog, but my mom is a hell of a cook) and witty conversation. The setback to this is that my father—the same man who was positively flabbergasted that I could finish my dinner in the same amount of time it took Roger Bannister to run a mile—is now setting land speed records of his own with each evening get-together…because to miss one nanosecond of the NBC Nightly News (or as I derisively call it, “The Brian Williams Show”) would bring about the fall of Western civilization as we know it today.
Thirty years ago, I could probably understand why my father is so desperate to inhale his food and catch the evening news at 6:30pm to make certain he’s well-briefed with what’s going on the world. Before the rise of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and all the other 24-hour cable news chattering, you pretty much obtained your news from the nightly ritual hosted by Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw—my Dad was a CBS man, so he’d usually have Dan Rather on. Before the Internet, you caught up with what was going on locally and globally by reading the newspaper in the morning and fidgeting and sweating it out until Uncle Walter told you that’s the way it was. My father is living proof that old habits are hard to break—every morning at breakfast, he will masticate his food in a speedy spectacle that is truly breathtaking to behold, and then he gets up from the table and goes down to our local Golden Pantry for an Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (He must do this because the AJC, in a decision that still leaves me somewhat bewildered, won’t deliver to our neck of the woods here in Athens because…wait for it… since newspaper readership/subscriptions are on the decline, they’ve had to eliminate home delivery as an economy measure. It baffles science!)
My father will then return to our humble home, squat in his easy chair and read the paper from cover to cover. I’m totally serious about this. He reads every column inch of the newspaper. He even reads the notices in the back of the classified ad section where people declare they will no longer be responsible for their debts and what not. If there’s any benefit to this, it’s that I can usually watch something on TV because he’s buried in the paper…but only if there’s something on at that time that I want to watch.
At noon, he turns on WSB-TV’s (Channel 2) newscast, whereupon he and my mother get updates on the stabbings, shootings, and things bursting into flame that permeate both Atlanta and surrounding counties. Then, he switches over to MSNBC at 1pm and insists on watching the dreadful Andrea Mitchell (awful, awful woman) bloviate for an hour, and then…well, I’m not sure who’s on after that because that’s usually about the time I’ve wandered out of the room and towards the computer. He then switches back to WSB at 4pm because ever since Oprah Winfrey gave up her show (and a grateful nation thanked her) the station decided that rather than put that hour to good use showing, oh, a classic TV rerun or two they would instead inform their viewership about more stabbings, shootings, and things bursting into flame. He then watches WSB at 5pm, lest objects ablaze escape his attention, and by 6pm my Mom usually has dinner ready and waiting on the table. This means that he has a half-hour to devour his dinner and sprint back to his chair to catch B-Dubs at 6:30pm. And after Brian has finished preening, he’ll switch it over to Chris Matthews to hear him yell for an hour…provided Mom hasn’t already taken matters in hand and found a Braves game in progress.
Even though I am frequently at a loss to explain the viewing choices made by my father—honest to my grandma, he spent the fourth of July watching a marathon of Police P.O.V., which made me reflect how fortunate I am to be an American and how proud I am to live in a land where police officers on TV approach a dwelling they believe to be a crack house…but instead belongs to a harmless little old black lady concerned about her son not being able to afford a loaf of bread. To be honest, I don’t really care how much news my father watches because I’m usually doing other things while that is going on. My mother, on the other hand, is slowly being driven insane. But that’s not the worst of it—she wants to take me down with her.
“How can one person watch that much news every single frickin’ day?” she confided in me rather loudly after my father left the dinner table in such a hurry the suction took what was left on our plates in his wake. “It’s the same damn news at noon…the same damn news at four…the same damn news at five…and the same damn news at (expletive deleted) six (more expletives deleted) pee em! He sits in that chair all day, buried in that newspaper—and when he’s finished, he stares at the TV set for six hours watching the same (even more expletives deleted) news over and over again!” And I bite the insides of my mouth to keep from chortling at this because, when you get down to it, there’s something awfully funny about a 79-year-old retiree racing through dinner as if his friends were outside waiting. (“Honey! The guys are depending on me!”)
As you may have guessed…my mother’s a little on edge about this. But this is just a warm-up for what really gets on her wick. My father sits down to the dinner table with us every night. Mom has usually prepared a tasty meat entrée, some potatoes (or rice); a hot vegetable or two, occasionally some bread and complementing all this she’ll either fix us individual salads or cut up some cukes and tomatoes for our dining pleasure. Dad will look upon this splendid repast with approval…and then rather than dig into a piping hot serving of meat and potatoes, he elects to eat either his salad or cold vegetables. And he will eat the salad or vegetables, one by one, until he has finished them…guaranteeing, of course, that the meat and potatoes are no longer piping hot. He will then either tackle the meat or potatoes—he switches off depending on what strikes his fancy—and eat that until he has finished, and then he will complete the dinner by finishing up the remaining entrée. Yes, my father cannot “blend” his eating of dinner—he must devour each item one at a time until it no longer remains.
Now, the reason why this sets my Mom off is sort of Seinfeldian—she once dated a guy in high school with the same quirk, eating one item on his plate before moving on…and she ended up cutting him loose faster than you can say “Seconds, please.” Again, I don’t care how my father eats his dinner because…well, because I just don’t care, period. But for some odd reason this peccadillo of Dad’s causes Mom endless anguish and she will look in my direction and roll her eyes repeatedly as if to say: “Can you believe this is happening?” It’s gotten to the point where I can’t look at her anymore during mealtimes.
“Why does he do this?” she wails plaintively. “Why does he let the hot portion of the meal get stone cold after I spent so much time preparing it, focusing on that (really obscene expletive deleted) salad?” I don’t have an answer that will satisfy my mother. I wish I did—I wish I were able to make this problem go away because, quite frankly, I’m concerned that her eyes are eventually going to roll back so far in their sockets it will require medical attention. But the thing is—my father has reached the station in his life commonly known as “Set-in-His-Ways-ville”…population him. I did suggest to her that she might want to consider doing something she did during her stay at my old apartment last year when I was in recuperation—she would serve up the salads first, and we would eat them as we watched the conflagrations that are the norm on Channel 2.
“That will just make more work for me,” she replied. “Well, you’re pretty much taking the trouble to make the salads as it is—why not make them sooner?” I told her. One night my Mom got a wild hair and asked him why he always ate his salad first—and he replied: “Because the other food is too hot to eat.” She then turns her head slowly in my direction, and there I am, spooning steak and baked potato into my beak with precious little discomfort. My Mom sighed. (She sighs a lot.)
My family is no stranger to bizarre eating habits. I may have mentioned this before, but my sister Kat has this obsession about the food on her plate “touching.” She must have each entrée in a separate bowl or on an independent plate—and one time when we went out to eat at a Ted’s Montana Grill in Newnan, GA she dressed down the wait staff for what seemed like an eternity for failing to comply with her request. (To the family with whom I ended up finishing my meal—I apologize for sitting down unannounced at your table, but you can see the sort of thing I’m dealing with here.) Almost as embarrassing as being related to the Adrian Monk of dining is my other sister, Debbie, who will react to French fries in the same manner as the Wicked Witch of the West will to a bucket of H2O. (Seriously—how can you not like French fries?) I’m even a little crazy when it comes to certain items on the menu—I like to put Fritos on my bologna sandwiches or a PB&J…a habit I picked up in grade school to gross out my female classmates and something I haven’t been able to shake since.
I hold my mother’s cooking in such high regard that I never miss a step in complementing each meal—sometimes I go so overboard, in fact, that I sound like an obsequious politician stumping for votes. But I’m truly grateful that Mom goes the distance in meal preparation because past performance of my own has tended to create such dishes as melted Snickers bars over Pop Tarts or Ho-Ho’s under glass. My father would compliment my mother, too, save for two reasons: 1) He no longer has a sense of smell or taste. 2) I think he takes her for granted.
I’m not kidding about the loss of smell/taste, folks. Mom will come into the living room and ask me if I smell anything good—and naturally I do—but as far as my Dad goes…an elephant could take a dump in the front room and it would escape his olfactory notice. (God help us if there’s ever a gas leak in this place.) I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my sense of smell or taste…unless I put it to practical use winning bar bets.
As for the second condition—well, I wish he’d be a little more accommodating when it came to saying things like “Honey, that was ambrosia and nectar worthy of the gods.” But when you’re a kid, you never stop to consider that once you get the opportunity to get out in the world; you can eat at the finest establishments and sample the world’s best cuisine…and it’s still never going to compare to the sort of grub you get at home. Hell, Elvis would have turned up his nose at coq au vin and a fine 1918 Château Lafite Rothschild just to chow down on one of his ma’s peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.
The child becomes the parent? Sadly, it’s all too true. When I was a kid, I’d see something in a magazine and say to my father: “Dad—this is really cool! I can send away for this (fill in the blank) and it’s absolutely free.”
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” the wise old patriarch of the Shreve family would say to me in return. Now if I could only get him to understand that that Nigerian prince doesn’t really want to bestow upon him a fortune in exchange for a little harmless money laundering, I’ll work on getting him to schmooze my mom’s cooking a little more.