was usually at my grandfather's house. We called my grandfather
"Pa". He sat at the head of the dinner table and
he commanded absolute respect, not necessarily by any actions
or commands. He didn't have to. We knew that if you called
attention to yourself, you made yourself a grand target for
his teasing. This would always end in tears, so it was not
a good idea to direct any focus to yourself. Like a student
trying to evade notice by a strict teacher, it was wise to
be as meek as possible around Pa. The best way was to act
if your mouth was full. We were rarely encouraged to speak
at the table out of turn, but talking with your mouth full
was the height of bad manners. It was best to eat, enjoy your
food and help clean up, leaving the table as quickly as possible.
Even if you planned misdirection and tried to tattle on a
sibling, it could easily turn on you. Sitting extremely close
to Pa was misguided. Directly to Pa's left was the hotseat.
At an early age, you were spared from this fate, but many
an older relative sat in the hotseat and basked in the glory
of his teasing, nestled within the quiet wheezing of his ever-increasing
Pa was a man who enjoyed everything he did, including teasing
those around him. He did each action larger than necessary,
even yawning. Pa's yawns started out with a loud cry, increasing
in volume until it could be heard from Kansas. My grandmother
always said that Pa enjoyed his yawns and I'm sure that was
true. He certainly projected this often enough and at full
Dinner didn't start until everyone was at the table. We would
be called to eat a few times before we actually appeared at
the table, breathless and red-faced after our play. Even after
we were seated, there were a few moments before we could actually
be silent enough for things to start. For some reason, sitting
down became a game of musical chairs. It would take forever
for us to get situated. Some of us would need a phone book
or two so that we could reach the height of the table. There
was also a bit of organized yelling as we were chastised for
not getting to the table sooner while the food was actually
hot. Of course my relatives had the oven at such a blaze that
even in the height of winter you could stand in the kitchen
in your underwear, fanning yourself. The food not only never
got cold, but you could probably power a small city off of
the heat radiating off of the serving wear. My mother, grandmother
and aunts came out serving the food in full asbestos gear
with fire extinguishers at the ready, just in case any of
the smaller children set fire.
Dinner began with grace. Our family said grace very respectfully.
Then the special intentions started. Our family included everyone
in these special intentions. Anyone who was sick or in need
of prayer or blessings would be mentioned. If someone were
to trip on the street in front of the house, they would probably
get included as a last minute addition, like a newscaster
announcing a just-updated sports score. As a child, I always
wondered what God thought about including these prayers while
we were thanking the Lord for food. Yes, God, we are very
thankful for our food, home and health, but while we have
you on the line, can you give a little help to Mrs. Russo
who's back is acting up. I was heartily enthusiastic about
praying for those less fortunate than our family. In fact,
I was so concerned about remembering the long list of people
that we had to pray for that I would use shorthand in my head.
A favorite comedian on Electric Company would use sound effects
instead of punctuation. I would use quotes and ellipses on
Sunday to make sure that everyone was included and then I'd
use this in my head for the whole week. I figured that God
would certainly know what I meant and He was a busy deity
anyways. This probably saved Him time.
Pa never would wait for the intentions to finish, but instead
would start to nod and wave one hand in mock blessing, like
the Pope at a benediction. He'd start eating with the other
hand. Although my own head was bowed, I'd always peek up and
glance at my Mom or Dad to see if there was any reaction.
They never would acknowledge this behavior and I slowly learned
that only my grandfather could get away with this. It wasn't
that he was being disrespectful to God or anyone we were praying
for; it was just that they had their own problems and he was
hungry! He also had to finish eating so that the teasing of
the family could start.
During dinner, it was best to stare at your plate, eat your
food enthusiastically, showing the maximum amount of enjoyment
without actually making any sound. You could comment on your
food and were encouraged to compliment the cooks, however
talking about anything often invited unwanted attention.
When you're a child, though, it's very easy to become distracted
and the invitation to play with your food, tease younger children
or make noises is irresistible. While it was discouraged to
giggle at the table, it was impossible not to when an older
uncle was tickling us or teasing. We were very young and being
forced to sit up straight, be as quiet as possible and be
on our best behavior. Anything at all could set us off, giggling.
Efforts to shush us only made it funnier.
Now and then, we'd also get a glimpse of Pa eating. When
my grandfather ate his meals, he did so with gusto. He would
stab a generous portion with a fork and bring it closer to
his mouth. We would watch in fascination as his face would
undergo an instant transformation. At the moment of consumption,
he would get the most astonished and surprised look on his
face. As the bit reached closer, it would seem as if time
would stop entirely. His whole face would tense up as his
mouth and eyes would open wide. He looked as if his food had
suddenly changed before his eyes and was about to eat him
or as if he were being jolted with a shock of electricity!
Forced to be on our best behavior, seeing this wide-eyed astonishment
on Pa's face would always make us giggle!
We'd nudge each other while the adults weren't looking, perhaps
exchanging lotteries about who would sit in the hotseat after
dinner, and get our siblings or cousins to look. "Gina,"
I'd coax my sister. "Watch Pa take a bite of bread!"
As if was safer in conspiracy, it made it even funnier.
We'd giggle even louder, getting the other kids to watch.
At the next bite, it would be three, then four of us, staring
in rapt attention at the transformation in our normally serious
grandfather. He'd take that next bite, again frozen in stunned
astonishment and that was it for us. We had lost the battle
and one of us started to laugh uncontrollably. We would turn
as red as the pasta sauce. Like birds startled into flight,
we'd all burst out into laughter.
All of the adults would turn towards us and whisper hurriedly.
"Stop that! Stop laughing at the table!" They knew
that if they were unable to control their own children, they
risked the hotseat. Although it could only conceivably hold
one person at a time, the night was young and there was plenty
However my grandfather would continue to eat, looking more
and more astonished and in our eyes it became funnier and
funnier. Eventually one of the adults would catch on at what
we were laughing at. It was all over. "Are you laughing
at Pa? Don't laugh at Pa!" When there is something truly
hilarious, telling a child not to laugh is going against his
nature. It is like getting a cat not to hunt. You can de-claw
them, but there is no getting them to stop pouncing.
Pa continued eating, not paying attention to what we were
actually laughing at. The adage that "children should
be seen and not heard" was modified according to my grandfather.
He believed that we were always laughing and playing at something
anyway, so as long as one of us wasn't actually on fire that
he could go on eating, napping or watching the TV. Unless
one of us obstructed his own activity, we were pretty much
invisible to him.
None of the parents were paid this any mind, of course, because
any misbehaving that was attributed to them in some way. They
continued to reprimand us as we got out of hand. Our parents
were noticed more than their children and were generously
chastised at the end of the meal during dessert and coffee.
Pa loved to berate any misbehaving parents for the foibles
of their offspring with the accompaniment of sugar. He would
joyously laugh at their discomfort. It was almost as if he
enjoyed seeing us act out of line so he could have an excuse
to tease their parents. Though Pa loved teasing us as children,
unless we broke something valuable, it was always the fault
of our parents, at least according to Pa.
I only discovered this when I was much older and saw this
first-hand as a young adult. At the time, I only knew that
by the time our plates were half-empty, it was time to leave
the table. I always thought it was because we were full, but
it was really because our grandfather had now gathered enough
information to blackmail and berate our parents. I think he
lived for the misbehavior of his grandchildren. He even encouraged
us to act up, enjoying the way that our parents would get
further and further into trouble.
For instance, if he knew that we could only have a few cookies
for dessert, he'd egg us on, coaxing us to ask for just one
more cookie. He'd play both sides, enjoying the way we salivated
over the dessert, then demand to our mothers how we could
let our children get out of control like this. Then he'd break
up in laughter and watch the results as mother and child went
at it like cats. The others might watch this in disguised
relief, glad that that they weren't the target, but knowing
that they could be next if they laughed too heartily.
It was only later on that I discovered how much amusement
that we provided our grandfather during these dinners. I used
to believe that he could only take so much of our company.
We thought that spending too much time with Pa was like too
much time in the sun; the end result usually left us burnt
and sullen, vowing to be more careful next time. In reality,
though, we gave him more amusement and entertainment than
I had ever dreamed possible. Even though I miss my grandfather
now that he's gone and I miss the Sunday dinners, I have many
fond memories of his laughter and teasing. Whenever I think
of him, it is with his beaming, proud face, red with laughter,
a little too much wine and happy to have someone to tease.
I'd easily sit in the hotseat now if I could have another
dinner with him again.