On one such occasion, a son’s friend was over and was to stay to break bread with us one evening. After holding hands around the table, praying, and finishing with an urgent “amen” — which was similar to firing a starter’s pistol for my five sons to begin — the clockwise rotation of food plates and bowls of food were set in motion around the table (really, we had a clockwise pattern that assured some form of sanity and to assure that everyone had a shot at each food item). Once all serving dishes had made their initial tour around the table, and with plates full, the boys and their friend switched their attentions to their individual bounties in front of them.
Now granted, having five sons — and one step further, being the eldest of six sons myself — I know how easy it is to focus on devouring your food, with some small form of constraint, in order to obtain “your share” before your brothers go in for another round. And I also know that it can be easy to cast aside any and all table manners that your mother had taught you along the way — a seemingly harmless sacrifice in the testosterone driven need of Second Helpings. But alas, my mother (bless her soul) had deeply ingrained the need for manners to exist, especially at the table!
Sitting at the head of the table (king of my domain, with my wife’s approval), and knowing that there was enough food to go around, and that I could probably survive on the single plate of food that I had amassed for myself, I surveyed the table (my kingdom); my wife to my left, my young daughter to my right, and the scattering of boys beyond them wrapped around the rest of the table. My wife and daughter showed their usual sweetness and restraint as they took bites from their plates. My boys and their friend however, took part in what could best be described as an episode of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel (I swear some of their eyes were rolling back into their heads), attacked their plates as if they hadn’t eaten since lunchtime.
Smiling inside, I mused, Nothing new. At least they aren’t taking bites out of the plates and silverware. Casually turning my attention to our guest seated toward the end of the table, my confident grin suddenly flat-lined to what my confused eyes were processing!
I couldn’t help but cock my head to one side and stare in disbelief, trying to fathom what was happening at my dinner table. Was he out of his mind? Was this a personal affront against me? My kingdom? Everything this world and common decency stood for? Oh, the humanity! (Too much?)
The feeding frenzy slowly lost pace as my sons began to notice my gaze. One by one they stopped eating and traced the focus of my stare. Finally, the son’s friend noticed the disturbing hush that fell over the table and looked around in confusion, mouth still full, elbow still on the table. To the relief of my sons, and my wife at this point, one of my boys nodded toward the friend’s “elbow” and whispered in his direction, “Take your elbow off the table.” The friend slowly drifted his elbow off the table and onto his lap, offering a half-grin to me as a sort of peace offering. I returned a thoughtful smile back in acceptance; a consorted sigh of relief echoed around the kingdom (table).
Looking to my right and nodding to my young daughter, I asked, “Why is it important for your brothers to keep their elbows off the table and have good manners while eating?”
Directing her comments to the crowd of boys, my daughter started, “You need to have good manners so that one day you will get married and move out of the house.” She ended with, “But I can live here as long as I want.” Pleased with herself and her comment, she smiled back at me.
A simple lesson taught. One that I think that they still remember, given that we now laugh about it now and then. I know that training my sons to resemble humans, while at any eating venue, out in the real world, away from home, away from arm’s reach, on their own, was ultimately worth what my own brothers and I put our mother through. And to my boy’s spouses, you’re welcome, they are now your problem (big grin); unless of course they’re eating at my table (I’m not afraid to still spot-check them).
Though this story is partially tongue-in-cheek, in a way, it really isn’t. I’ve had an opportunity in my travels to dine with a variety from individuals, from the every-day John and Jane, to the society-recognized, uh, John and Jane. One thing that has always astounded me was table manners during these events. I’ve witnessed people eating a steak at a black-tie function, holding their silverware as if the meat were still alive and chanced escaping from their plates. I’ve further witnessed people clutching the same silverware and scooping up mashed potatoes and vegetables appearing as a re-enactment of a Oliver Twist scene. And the elbows, yes, the elbows!
I realize that this may sound as though I’m some type of etiquette snob. To the contrary, I’m a basic Joe in all aspects of the word. However, if there was one thing that my mother wanted to make sure of while my brothers and I were growing up, it was table manners. She pained over teaching us the basics that would follow us through our lives (she hoped). From placing the napkin on our lap, to using our utensils, she was there every step of the way, modeling the action, gently prompting when necessary.
My mother preferred using the American Method of using our utensils, versus the European Method. Though I don’t follow it to the letter, I have stayed fairly true to her teaching. And in honoring her memory, my children learned the same lessons. And one step further, I even helped one of my grandkids the other day in cutting up her waffle, to which she said, “I can cut it up myself, grandpa.” I then watched her as she fought with holding her knife and fork and attempting to saw away at the mountainous squares. Smiling at her ambition, I asked, “Do you want to know a secret that makes it easier?” To that, she gladly replied “Yes!”
Another generation was inducted into my mother’s etiquette club. All I can say is, thanks mom. You did it. Generations will benefit from your loving patience.