I learned early on to be wary of cloth napkins, except for my mother’s. Mom put our Sunday table linens in the Monday wash, to be dampened and ironed on Tuesday, ready to be laid out in the dining room for the next Sunday. However, this was not the case at my best friend Kathy’s house. Occasionally when we were together playing she’d ask her Mom if I could stay for dinner. This was a dubious pleasure for me. I was an only child and enjoyed the family banter between her brother and sister, but not the table napkins!
It was Kathy’s job to take them out of the buffet drawer and place one at each setting. I was horrified to see that they were stained with the residue of past meals. It spoiled dinner for me every time, watching this boisterous family eating heartily and wiping their mouths. After the meal Kathy put them back in the buffet to wait for the next evening when they would be brought back out again. I visualized residue food festering on those napkins, the inside of the buffet drawer alive with creepy crawlies.
But, almost as horrifying as the way Kathy’s family used the same napkins night after night was the way they always ate at the dining room table. Was nothing sacred? At my house, Sunday dinner was the only meal served in our dining room. My mom always cooked some kind of roast with all the trimmings, ready at precisely 6 o’clock. The table sparkled with the good dishes, silverware and table linens. As we unfolded our crisp white cloth napkins Dad said grace, also an “only on Sunday” happening.
I like to think that the best dishes, silverware and cloth napkin ritual was easier for my mother. She only had me to keep an eye on, with my Dad at the end of the table, dressed in his church attire, silently but watchfully backing her up. The family attitude was more formal too. Mom worked hard to prepare these feasts and all the proper accoutrements paid homage to her efforts.
Dad was a master carver, a skill he was proud of. Presiding over the carnivorous offering, his knife flashed over the sharpening steel many times before he was satisfied. He made an impressive display, testing the acuity of his efforts with the tips of his fingers on the knife blade while gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling.
If we had guests, Dad poured liqueurs for the adults from a carafe that sat on the buffet, which offered six different kinds in brightly coloured sections. I didn’t like crème de menthe but enjoyed all the others, when I snuck into the dining room for a sampling.
After the meal, Dad and I helped clear and tidy the room. No one entered again until the next Sunday. During the week, when he was in the living room reading his paper Dad always entered the kitchen via the front hall, never passing through the dining room, which would have been the shorter and most obvious way to go. I never sat at that table to do my homework. No plans were ever spread out and discussed there. It was a roast beef sanctuary.
After I married, Sundays at my home were less formal than at my parent’s. In four years we had three children, so the best dishes, silverware and table linens stayed put where they lived in the dining room buffet. Placemats had long been de rigueur. Punishable ones. We also used paper napkins by the ton with never a guilty feeling. My dining room sat empty on Sundays, surrounded by our glorious wedding gifts that were used only in wistful dreams.
Not to say that many of my family’s routines weren’t followed. Sunday was the one day of the week when we all ate together. With the activities of our three children and work for my husband and I, this was a day we looked forward to. My mother came each Sunday to spend the day with us. My Dad died before I was married so we were all she had, and she was all the kids had. My husband’s parents passed away early in our marriage.
While Mom was still driving she’d arrive before lunch, bringing a straw basket filled with baking, knitting and goodies for the kids. Mom always had to have a job to do at our house, thriving on “making herself useful”. My laundry room was cleared of any clothes that had been dumped there. Usually three full loads. The washer and dryer hummed all afternoon. Folding, ironing and putting away followed. If there was any time left before the dinner routine started, her knitting came out. The Salvation Army was the recipient of these efforts. Afghans, baby clothes and mittens were her specialty. She also managed to stock pile an array of baby garments for her future great grandchildren, which, sadly, she would never see.
True to tradition, and from lack of imagination, I served the same Sunday meals my mother prepared, learning to cook by watching her and copying everything she did. Mom’s specialty was her wonderful gravy. Any roasted thing in my house was also accompanied by this eighth deadly sin, and plenty of it.
When my mother’s sister and her husband, Nellie and Pat, moved to Toronto after the referendum scare in 1980, they joined us frequently for Sunday dinners. They’d arrive in my uncle’s huge black Lincoln. Uncle Pat always drove black Lincolns. I thought it must have been a status thing in Quebec. Sometimes they brought Margaret, my uncle’s spinster sister, who my kids referred to as “spun,” which I thought was unkind and immature of them, but accurate; she was more than a little dizzy.
The dialogue between my mother and her sister fascinated me. Mom said that Nellie was ‘the family favourite’ when they were growing up. Aunty reiterated that my mother had always been number one. These women were in their eighties. They criticized their two brothers, one of whom Aunty hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. My mother was somewhat sanctimonious about staying out of the family fray, but only because she lived in Toronto and they were in Montreal.
One thing Mom and Aunty both agreed upon, and let us know in the not so subtle terms of the ageing, was our lack of religious responsibility towards the children. This was a favourite Sunday topic. She and Nellie discussed the relative merits of that day’s sermon for our benefit. Uncle Pat sat silently. He was a lapsed Catholic. My aunt confided to me that he’d lost interest in the church years ago when a priest came to stay each summer at a lodge they managed. And, each summer, a different woman had accompanied him.
I acquired religious apathy from my Dad. Every Sunday, wedged between my parents, in a pew precipitously close to the lectern and buffeted by the opposing forces of my parents, I made my decision. The red faced minister, billowing arms flapping in front of me, was of no consequence. It was my parents, my role models, who guided the choice I made. I took the path of least resistance.
Dad always sat at the end of the pew, close to the aisle, falling comfortably and audibly asleep as soon as the sermon started. Mother’s rapt attention was fractured by her futile attempts to awaken him, which took a lot of effort judging by her expression, snapping fingers and hissing whispers. Of the two protagonists, Dad’s Sunday role was by far the most appealing. On the walk home after a long hypnotic service, admonishments from Mom bounced from him like bullets off Superman. He’d take her hand and smile, looking forward to the afternoon, napping and reading, while she prepared the feast.
After our third child was born we gave in to pressure and made one grand gesture, the baptism of all three kids on the same Sunday. We managed to persuade three sets of friends to stand in as godparents, an Anglican imperative. I’m sure my mother was shattered when she realized that this peace offering was not the start of a Sunday church routine. Some months after the baptism we heard that the minister ran off with one of the parishioners, leaving his wife and seven children. I loved reminding mother of this. She worried that his transgression made the baptism null and void.
Mom’s trips to our house in her own car came to a sudden end. One Sunday morning my husband Ed and I received a call from a police officer. My mother had had a mishap with her car. When we arrived at the scene we spotted mother’s car, parked on the rear bumper of someone else’s vehicle. Police officers were writing on note pads and surveying the situation. I was relieved that no one was hurt, particularly my 86 year old mother. The posture of the other driver and the officers told me that something was up besides the fender bender.
As I approached my mother, she said: “I don’t know where he came from.”
“He was right in front of you Mom, you rear ended him.” I looked towards the officers.
One distracted my mother while the other took me aside and whispered, “Your mother should not be driving.”
“You’re the authority,” I said. “You tell her.”
Within a week Mom had her car fixed and sold. From then on, each Sunday, Nellie and Pat became her chauffeur. At the end our day together, my family and I would stand in the doorway, watching these three dear old people walk towards their chariot. The drive home would be slow and steady along the city streets, no highway driving for them after dark.
One by one they exited our Sunday scene. In 1989 Uncle passed away in my Aunt’s arms, nice and quick, no complications. Nellie, after 55 years of bantering with him, was inconsolable. She died six years later, suffering the stroke she dreaded. My mother’s death was the saddest and most prolonged. At 93, after enduring the symptoms of a motor neuron disease for four years, she died in 2001, the last of our Sunday cheering section.
I can still see that Lincoln, creeping up the driveway, the passengers gathering their packages as it comes to a stop. My mother and my aunt walking slowly toward the house, carrying baskets and bags full of goodies. Uncle, trailing behind, a fedora on his head no matter what the season, waving and calling to us, his favourite hosts.
Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.