“older than dirt”

I got this in an email the other day:

Someone asked the other day, “What was your favorite fast food when you were growing up?”
“We didn’t have fast food when I was growing up,” I informed him.
“All the food was slow.”
“C’mon, seriously. Where did you eat?”
“It was a place called ‘at home,” I explained. “Mom cooked every day and when Dad got home from work, we sat down together at the dining room table, and if I didn’t like what she put on my plate I was allowed to sit there until I did like it.”
By this time, the kid was laughing so hard I was afraid he was going to suffer serious internal damage, so I didn’t tell him the part about how I had to have permission to leave the table.

It went on to explain what life was like if you were “older than dirt”. Reading it brought back memories. I may have to cite more of it as the weeks go by, because it certainly described what life was like for me in comparison to what it is like for today’s youth.
Dinner was, indeed, served in a dining room. We set the table with place mats and silverware. We learned where to put the spoons and forks and in the right order, not just tossed on the table or wrapped in a paper napkin. In fact, we used real linen napkins. The food was served on a platter and passed around the table in an orderly fashion. When you wanted more, you asked the person nearest to the platter to “please pass the…” You were admonished if you “hitch-hiked” on the platter passing you and took a spoonful before it reached the person who asked for it.
There were exceptions to this in the summer when the rules were relaxed. And I can give my dad credit for this. He would signal the person with the platter of rolls or bread, hold his hands like he was going to catch a base-ball, and the roll or bread would come flying across the table. Dad would then make a signal to “skid the grease” and the butter would be passed not tossed. This was part of the summer routine. (We had to be reminded every fall about returning to winter rules.)
The difference between summer and winter was significant. In the winter there were just four of us. I really don’t even recall invited guests for a meal. That was because in the summer we went to the Cape and stayed in my grandparents house. It was a huge “cottage” meaning unfinished walls, cots for beds, but there were 10 bed rooms. So the company came to visit in the summer. There were aunts and uncles, visiting cousins and a huge array of friends of those relatives. Sometimes there were 25 people around the dining room table, and a kids table in the corner. We still passed platters of food. We still had proper manners most of the time. Momie insisted we dress for dinner… no bathing suits, and a real dress. At lunch time the rule was no bathing suits but shorts were OK. Breakfast was an arrangement where you got your own food and helped with the clean up. I recall my bed room was over the kitchen, and the rule was that if you were the last one down to breakfast, you had to clean the kitchen. The walls were paper thin, and I would lie in bed and tick off who had come down and when I was sure I was the next to last person, I would go get my breakfast.
Everyone helped with the dishes. We had a pantry and my dad was the fastest dishwasher known to mankind. Those dishes arrived on the drainer so fast it took about five of us to keep up, dish towels in hand, wiping the dish dry and putting it away as we circled back around.
The kitchen was another matter. Pots took more scrubbing.The kitchen was bigger so putting things away took longer. Momie would store the food, and Marge, a friend of Momie who came and stayed with us all summer with her two kids and a baby sitter, would scrub and wash. We held a race against the pantry and would cheer when we won. Sometimes a spoon would end up in the wrong place and it would be held until the last minute, and then taken to the kitchen or pantry so the team could declare victory as the kitchen or pantry had to wash that last item. Summer chores were certainly more fun than winter chores.
Winter dish washing was different. Momnie washed. If she let either of the two of us wash, we played battle ship and bombed the dishes with a dish rag. In order to stop the bickering about who would wipe and who would put away, we learned poetry. She propped a poetry book on the window sill and we recited what we recalled and then went from there. I can still recite most of “The little toy dog is covered with rust, but sturdy and staunch he stands.” I would have to look up the author. Momie grew up in an era where memorizing poetry was part of her studying and she could quote a lot of verse.
The statement about having to eat what was on my plate brought back a significant memory. We did, indeed, have to eat at least a tablespoon of a food we didn’t like. My dad liked a gravy or a cream sauce with every dinner. My mother had been to a cooking school at some point and learned how to make a cream sauce. So if the meat didn’t have a gravy we had creamed vegetables: creamed corn, creamed carrots, creamed potatoes, and worst of all creamed celery. I did not like creamed celery.
When I went off to college I came home one weekend and Momie, thoughtfully, cooked a meal for her returning daughter. Only she cooked up the likes of my sister!  The vegetable dish came to me and there was the dreaded creamed celery. I looked at it and paused. Ordinarily, before I left for college, I was required to take my tablespoon full. My pause did not last long. I passed the dish on to my dad. I did not take my required spoonful. No one said anything. I knew I had grown up. I could make my own decisions. I was on my own and I had unspoken permission to avoid the cream celery. WOW

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5 Responses to “older than dirt”

  1. Aimee says:

    What a fun story to read! I love hearing about what life was for older generations – I suppose that is why I teach history. I wonder why or when the “rules” changed for behavior? I’d love for all kids to know how to sit at the dinner table properly!

  2. Tam says:

    Oh, wow! My family wasn’t as formal as yours, but we had rules at the table. Supper was a mainstay and had to be there every day! Sunday dinner was another one. This piece is wonderful and with your pictures–delightful!!! Thank you for grounding me again.

  3. Wanda Brown says:

    Since my husband and I were brought up with many of the dining protocols you mentioned, we continued many of these traditions with our children until their high school years. Then the meals together got to be fewer and fewer as they were both involved in so many things, it was hard to find everyone home at the same time. Food has always been cooked at home and I am proud to say both of my grown sons cook great meals with their significant others. Thanks for sharing such a detailed accounting of a tradition that has almost faded away for the typical American family.

  4. Mindi Rench says:

    My daughters are 6 and 9, and now that the youngest isn’t QUITE as messy, I’ve pulled the tablecloths and cloth napkins out of storage in an effort to be “trashless”. I’ve found that since we’ve started using these, my girls eat more of their dinners, and we linger at the table just a bit longer. I think there’s something to be said for a bit of formality!

    Thank you for your lovely post (except for the thought of creamed celery. Ick). I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  5. Your post shows us how much family life has unraveled as everyone grew up. Formal dining makes dinner special.

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