Both Mom and I had been raised with the tradition of the evening meal at the dinner table. So it was easy for us to adopt the same traditions for our family. Mom had eaten dinner many times at my father’s dinner table, so she knew some of the humor and antics that were likely to occur. I think that prospect made it even more appealing.
But credit needs to be given where it’s due. Much of how you were raised has to do with your mother. She changed me more than any other single person in my life. I was much harsher before Mom. I was much more black and white about things before Mom. She taught me the softer side of life that I’m not sure my own father ever knew. Gladly I am not totally left-brained like my Dad was and so I had the capacity to learn other points of view.
You were both slowly graduating out of your high chair and booster seat stages and were increasingly able to hold a conversation at dinner. At first it was Mom and I talking about our day, thoughts for the week, or plans for one thing or another. But more and more the interruption by a little voice signaled that the beginning of the fun at dinner was beginning. Of course, you had no idea what you were about to experience, and maybe that was part of the fun for us.
When I was growing up the dinner table was generally ruled by my father. The conversation, the tempo, and the subject matter were all determined by him. Before I left home at 10, we had a little dog, a beagle of some kind I think, named Cinnamon. Dad hated the whole idea of a house pet, let alone a dog. It left hair everywhere, it smelled, and it had to be considered whenever your routine was broken. As I have said, my parents were extremely ordered and methodical people and I have no idea how a dog even entered the picture. I suspect my mother ‘wanted it for the kids.’ Well, this dog was in for an ordered life whether he wanted one or not. The dinner table was not going to be a place for dogs! Dad had trained this dog to eat his dinner at the same time we did and then go directly to a spot outside the dining room and lay down. Cinnamon would not move until my father got up from the table.
Well, as we started out at our table I would hardly say that I was ruling anything. But as you were growing up I was able to steer the conversation in one direction or another. After we had lived here for a few years Grover appeared in our driveway and Karen soon adopted this dog under the guise of ‘the kids should have a dog’. Unlike my father, I didn’t totally hate the idea of pets in the house. Sure they could be inconvenient, but it was fun to watch everyone get out in the yard and play together. However, there was that one rule that was passed down from father to son, no dogs at the table! So I set about the task of training him, the same way that Cinnamon was trained. Only Grover was quite a bit smarter than Cinnamon was. Whenever anyone got up from the table, Grover thought that was his signal and he would shoot across the room and say hi to everyone. And so the rule, ‘no one gets up from the table until Daddy gets up’ was put into place. Suddenly, I was ruling the dinner table. This would continue every night for 16 years until you left for college.
My father had little or no interest in the daily lives of his children. Unless you arrived at the dinner table with either a black eye or a failing report card, you could sit and listen. He was the adult and by definition he was there to teach and enlighten. That was one of the areas where I thought some changes needed to be made in the tradition. So at our table, once Grace had been said I would go around the table with a ‘what did you do today.’ I think it was Patrick who first tried, “I got up, I went to school, I came home, I did my homework, and I came to dinner.” That was the last time I ever heard that one, but nice try kiddo! Even Mom got to participate. My mother never said a word at dinner and I wanted to change that as well. I was always last one up and that would lead us into some interesting story or other.
Of course every parent indulges in the tried and true short phrase that is often repeated. That I can remember there were four that I used on a regular basis:
- Listen intently and follow directions
- Stay within the lines
- Work and play well with others
- Do Unto Others
As you were both growing up, those four simple phrases seemed to cover enough of life’s little challenges to help you along.
Around the time that you were in elementary school, Virginia adopted the Standards of Learning (SOL) concept in all its schools. This meant that there was a prescribed amount of information that each child had to learn at each grade level and they would then be given SOLs at the end of the year to prove that they had learned at least a high percentage of everything that was taught. I always grinned at the acronym because that wasn’t the meaning I was used to, but the effect was the same. If you didn’t pass the SOL, you didn’t go to the next grade. As a result the Commonwealth of Virginia could show that their students had learned more in a shorter period of time than almost anywhere else in the country. But here’s what it really did; it rapidly raised the levels of all the lowest pupils and stifled the learning of all the highest pupils. The teachers quickly found out that they were also being graded by how well their students did, so the teachers ‘taught to the test,’ and there rarely was time for anything extra.
Now at the dinner table I knew that I couldn’t keep up with cute and interesting stories for the next 16 years, so as you talked about what you learned in school, I would ask questions that I thought were slightly outside of what they were learning. If you were learning about the Revolutionary War I would ask who Washington’s Artillery General was (Knox for those of you following along). At one dinner Patrick asked me how many planets there were in the solar system. Before I answered I had him answer, and of course he said 9 and he named them all. But earlier that year the former planet Pluto had been demoted to a planetoid, leaving the correct answer as 8. So he wrote on his homework that there were 8 planets and named them all. He was marked down with an incorrect answer. To say that I was livid about such a thing only touches the surface. But the SOL said there were 9 planets and the teacher had not read the scientific journal that said there were 8. Well, anyway, I was finding out that perhaps I needed to temper the ‘help’ I was offering.
Of course, we went through all the funny stories that I passed down from my father. You each tried to wiggle your noses without much success and I got blank stares at such things as the US Steel story. My Dad was probably disappointed at my reaction to that story as well. But I started to run into some serious trouble when you began taking subjects I had never taken in high school or college. When Sarah had a Calculus question, I was out of my league. This was the point in all parents’ lives when their children find out that maybe their parents don’t know everything. Unfortunately I couldn’t run off and Google it because there was no Google at that point. And you were now too old for me to invent some story about how the short-legged cows helped to melt the polar ice cap. So slowly I had to alter the format of dinner and have the kids engage each other, hoping that would spark some debate and intellectual curiosity.
Another very important part of the dinner tradition that was new to our family was the after dinner ‘take Grover for a walk’ tradition. Mom and I would always take Grover for a walk and discuss important adult issues. This was our way of discussing how we wanted to handle a discipline issue, a vacation planning issue, or any of a hundred other things. The important thing for us was to always show a united front to you kids. Only in the most rare instance did you ever see Mom and I disagree in front of you. And only in a rare instance did we ever disagree on anything anyway. But just to make sure that we were on the same page, we always talked things out before it became a matter of family discussion.
In the end, while you were both in high school, I had only the endless stories about what it was like to grow up in the 60s. Here we were in the early 2000s with all the electronic advances and I thought a good dose of the wild and crazy 60s would give you some perspective on your lives. I think it did. You would both quite often leave the table laughing and shaking your heads at the simplicity of my youth. Those were only the oral stories and histories, of which I am able to record now through these writings.
© J T Weaver