Dinner is an important time, even though your family drives you crazy

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2007

So it's Friday night. Everyone's finally home, and no one's in a particular hurry. Still, dinner needs to be made.

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But first, there's the dog to walk, the groceries to buy and the movies to pick up for the weekend. And nobody's moving fast, so dinner is slow, and the daughter who is away at college calls and there always needs to be time for that.

And when my teenage son asks if he can watch a movie instead of eating dinner with us, I'm tempted to give in.

But this Friday I don't. And the three of us sit down at the table. It's just a simple thing. How could this have taken so long - it's almost 8 o'clock - and it's only quesadillas and refried beans and salad.

After the initial grumbling about how come we have to sit down for dinner every night and wouldn't we have a better dinner without him here anyway, one thing leads to another. There's talk about movies, then movie stars and then a colleague who just had a baby. The combined topics of pregnancy and movie stars remind me of the recurrent abandonment dream I had during my first pregnancy, a dream about my husband leaving me for the actress Teri Garr.

My husband smiles and says, "Yeah, I always liked Teri Garr. What happened to her, anyway?" Our son grabs the laptop and Googles Teri Garr.

My husband tells some story that includes off-color language and our son is mildly shocked. Not at the language, of course, but at the idea that it came out of his father's mouth.

And mom and dad are privately pleased that he hasn't heard those word out of their mouths before.

And the son says, "So, can I finally watch my movie?" Because he can't really say, "Thanks for making me sit at the table with you."

And he doesn't have to.

A month later and the daughter is just home from college. Dad's making a celebratory dinner and people are feeling festive. Well, everyone except me, who is fixated on the duffle bags sprawled all over the living room, the summer jobs that haven't been applied for, the son's homework that hasn't been done and the daughter sleeping until noon. And if she thinks I'm doing her laundry, she has another thing coming.

Dinner conversation is full of stories of first-year dorm life, except for the occasional question from mom. Subtle hints like, "Did you follow up on that e-mail I sent about that job?" or "Have you revised your resume yet?" or, to my son, "Did you, by chance, do your homework after school?"

They are doing their best to ignore me.

After dinner, while I am suggesting that our daughter start on loads of laundry, our son pulls out his guitar to show off his new songs for his older sister. Then Dad retrieves his accordion to play along. Resistance is futile.

I step outside to keep from saying things I will later regret. I'm clearly in what my husband calls my "relentless mode," when I need to see things getting accomplished. I sit on the steps that lead from our patio into some woods and a small pond. I take in the blossoms on the blueberry bushes that seem to have appeared overnight. I think ahead to early mornings in July and August, when I will fill a cup with berries for muffins or pancakes. I watch the ducks plunging their heads into the pond water for their dinner and remember that less than a month ago it was still frozen.

Through the screen door I can hear my son's eclectic repertoire, from Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" to the White Stripes' cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." My daughter asks if he knows any Dylan, which is just the right question, and I smile.

My relentless mode starts to retreat one breath at a time. I knew from the beginning of the evening that I should feel grateful for children who want to spend their evening with us, for a husband who loves to cook, for our daughter's return from college. But I have trouble seeing past the additional coats and shoes that clutter the entryway, and the layer of teenage grunge that seems to permeate everything.

Now, finally, stepping away to watch from a distance, my heart is catching up with my mind. I don't feel grateful yet; still, I can imagine feeling that way by tomorrow night's dinner. For now, it's my turn to come to the table.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.



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