nuggets on nights when dinner’s escaping

by bam

if not for the culinary peculiarities of the little one, who demands them shamefully often, they would live on a shelf with all the emergency supplies–the flashlight, the batteries, the coil of rope.
and the nuggets. dehydrated, faux breaded chicken parts, cut in coy little legs to make you think you’re eating the very real thing. they too would be off with the back-ups. banned from public consumption. except in the case of a hurricane.
reserved for nights like last night. sad, pathetic, make-your-heart-pound nights like last night.
nights when dinner pulls every trick in the book in its wily attempt to escape.
ah, but it knows not who it’s up against.
i am fierce, i am nuts, when it comes to defending the dinner hour. i am, admittedly, a kook about gathering all of us, sitting us ’round the same maple slab, holding hands even, saying grace, digging in.
in to the occasional whining and actual snippets of real conversation. into the boy who’s been known to sink under the table. or the long stringy pastas that slide faster than he does in a race to the floor. it must be a game, see who gets there first.
oh, some nights it’s not pretty. but it is dinner, and it’s the knot in the cloth of our life where all the very loose threads come together. we twist. and we talk. and we tell all our stories.
given the age span, given as we dig into peas we are hearing who called whom “stupid” in kickball, and as we move on to noodles, what horror is being targeted by the global activist club, it can make your head whirl, boing like a little white ball, from one side of the plate to the other.
sometimes even the grownups get a chance to jump in. we might hear how the donald hung up on the daddy. or how mommy forgot, once again, to cancel the milkman because the global activist does not like the dairy man’s politics.
no matter the madness, there is a method. a crux of the matter. it dates back over a decade.
long ago, for my day job, i spent a very long time talking and listening to a truly fine family. i spent months, actually. i was there to record the emptying of their once very full nest; four children, busy lives, and then suddenly, two grownups alone in a very big house.
in the midst of reporting that story, the father once told me the single most fundamental thread of their incredibly tugged-apart life, a life that remained as entwined as any french knot, was their religious commitment to dinner, family dinner. if it was 9 o’clock before all stumbled in from wherever they’d been, they still made it happen.
the non-negotiables were these: a meal, a table, a carved-out hour at the end of the day. full attendance.
i had only one very young boy at the time. already, most every night we pushed that high chair up to the table, ate all together. it made as much sense to me as turning a spigot to fill a glass full of water.
but sometimes, even when you already know, the teacher speaks and the lesson is sealed. mr. grabowski, that was his name, is my muse for the coming together at the end of the day.
he didn’t let baseball or debate or that godawful soccer that seems to think it owns the hour from 6 until 7 get in the way of whatever was slopped on the plate, and spooned down besides.
and neither will i.
darn thing is, it’s not getting easier. the forces, it seems, are gathering. doing all they can to pull me and the dinner apart, into so many nuggets sucked down so many throats.
i’ll be damned.
last night it was the school newspaper. layout stretches right through the dinner hour, or so we’d been told. the budding young journalists move headlines, crop pictures, chomp pizza.
i had made a swift but lovely dinner for the rest of us. had stopped my workday with time to chop madly, saute, and let simmer. i even steamed up the broccoli, a famously ridiculed stand-by in this house. we managed to walk to the train to meet the commuter, sauntered home for a short respite before i dashed off to a book circle.
that’s when the phone rang. it was the manchild who’d been editing stories. he was ready for pickup, he informed. i looked at the stove, the pots and pans bright with so many colors. i looked at my husband, grabbing his keys.
that’s when my jaw dropped. that’s when i thought, no way, not now. can’t he wait? i mean i’ve gone to this trouble. can’t we sit down? can’t we at least shovel the food, pretend that we’re dining?
but i said not a word. he was gone before i could manage to banish some nagging counter-thought that of course we needed to pick up the child who’d gone off to school with three measly hours of sleep, a biology test and a 20-page paper to boot.
but then the phone rang again. it was the boy journalist. seems his eagerness to get home, to climb into bed perhaps, was a bit premature. he’d just been advised by the teacher in charge that it would be at least one more hour.
well, this is a world where we are all cellularly connected. except when we’re not. except when i dial the cell of my mate, and i hear it singing its song in the drawer in the desk in the kitchen.
oops. and oh no.
i had two choices: let the man wait by the curb at the school, wondering, not knowing, not having the means to call for a clue.
or i could haul the little one, hop in the other car, and drive like a madwoman to cut him off at the pass.
that’s where the nuggets came in.
the bright colored foods in the pot were not portable dinner. surely would slosh from the plate to the lap to the seat there in the back of a car being steered by a madwoman, a crazed woman, a woman who just wanted one thing from the day: a nice quiet meal before all of us spun our own ways.
alas, i zapped a few lumps of phony poulet, tossed the plate to the boy, and took off after the wagon.
so there’s me, the one who believes with every cell in her body, that dinner together is a very good thing. and i’m driving past one high school on the way to the other. i am passing very long lines there at the school, all these supersized vans filled with supersized carryouts, i wonder. given that it’s their dinner hour as well. and i am amazed at how many folks are not at their homes, at their tables, but there at the curb of the school, waiting.
but as i am thinking, i’m zooming. i too am clicking the clicker, turning the wheel at the hour that’s supposed to be sacred. the whole ride i am listening to a voice in my head, telling me, loudly, that i really have lost it. why not, it practically shouts, wave a white flag? why not let the dinner dissemble? why chase the man from the other side of the table back to the table? why the insistence on sitting, as many as we can possibly manage, together in that very fine circle?
because i am stubborn is why. because i will not let the world take away the one thing i deeply believe in, the sacred communion of slowing, of passing the bread, of pouring more milk. of asking, quite simply, so what was the best part of your day? what was the hard part?
i won’t give up listening. asking for seconds. or thirds, when it comes to the stories that simmered all day. that stewed. that are ripe, as we gather, for plucking.
we got home, yes we did. all three of us sat and we supped (the nuggets were starters for the backseat rider, who when we got home wanted more, i am sad to report).
the colors weren’t bright anymore. the sausage not terribly warm. but it was good. and it filled us, it did.
i might put in a call to mr. grabowski. ask him how in the world he so managed.

this here’s fightin’ words. anyone else fierce about guarding that hour? how do you do it? what grace do you find at the table? where and how did you learn that what unfolds as a family at dinner is, perhaps, the single most essential nutrient?