Sunday Dinner

Sunday dinner 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 laughter.

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 volume.

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 of coffee.

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.






@ 2005 Dan Speziale