Monday, November 30, 2009


When I was growing up, Sunday was a day long ritual. We dressed up and went to church in the morning. When we got home, my father read the New York Times while my mother prepared a big Sunday dinner--maybe a roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, several vegetable side dishes, usually homemade bread, and always a cake or a pie for dessert. After dinner we kids helped with the clean-up while my father dozed on the couch. After that we were expected to play quietly (not always easy for four kids with only five years between the oldest and the youngest) while my mother read the New York Times and my father watched a ball game on the television. Later we all piled into the family car for a Sunday drive. In the evening, we watched TV together--shows like Walt Disney, Wild Kingdom, Ed Sullivan, Bonanza. Sunday night supper was usually a bowl of ice cream or freshly popped popcorn with lots of melted butter and salt--the only meal that was ever eaten away from the kitchen or dining room table.

There was one Sunday dinner I remember that was somewhat unusual. We were joined by my paternal grandparents. We ate at the dining room table, but it was set up in the living room. A set up in the living room dates this memory to 1955 or 1956. My grandfather and father were building a master bedroom and bath onto our small two-bedroom house and would have been using the dining room as a work space and entry way to the addition. At this meal, I'm sure there was a roast, and potatoes and gravy, rutabaga (my grandmother always made rutabaga for big meals) and other vegetables, and I'm sure there was a pie or cake for dessert. Exact recall of these dishes has long ago left me, BUT I do have vivid recall of the fact that a bowl of sauteed mushrooms was placed on that table by my mother just as she came in from the kitchen and took her seat. I can recall my father's delight. "Ooh, mushrooms. Yum. I love mushrooms. Here, try'll love 'em," he practically gushed as he scooped a spoonful of mushrooms onto my plate.

I have never been an especially finicky eater. I speared a mushroom slice and guided it to my mouth as my father watched expectantly. He was not prone to play cruel jokes on me. I am still sure he really believed I would love mushrooms as much as he, so I smiled bravely and shook my head in affirmation. This seemed to fill him with joy. "I knew you'd like them! They're delicious!" he practically sang as he went back to the business of his own plate.
Meanwhile a mushroom, like some slimy living thing that had slithered out of a primordial ooze and invaded my body, sat on my tongue threatening to choke the very life right out of me. Spitting out food at the table just was not done, especially with my grandmother at the table. I knew that instinctively. I must have managed to swallow that offending substance, perhaps in a big gulp of milk. It's one of those traumatic memories that get blocked out of consciousness for all eternity.
Still, there was a daunting pile of mushrooms on my plate. If it was on your plate, you ate it. This was the legacy of my grandparents and parents, who had survived the deprivations of famines, and wars, and The Great Depression.
I sat quietly through the meal. "Children should be seen but not heard at the table" was a remark often made by my grandmother if adult dinner conversation was interrupted by the petty concerns of children. For once, this worked to my advantage. As the adults ate and conversed, I was able, with patience and vigilance and careful planning, to slide each mushroom slice over the edge of my plate and tuck it, unseen, under the lip of my mother's good China dinner plate. Finally, my mission accomplished, tension flooded out of me. I'd managed to "clean my plate" and, thereby, earn dessert. I sat contented in the midst of my family in what now could have been a scene for a Norman Rockwell illustration.
And then, the best words of the day, even the whole week..."Who's ready for dessert?" my mother asked. Both she and my grandmother stood to clear the table. Out went all the serving dishes from the middle of the table. In my ignorance, I sat looking at the yellow drapes with stylized Chinese motif hanging on the living room windows--looking forward to nothing but dessert. My mother came back into the room carrying dessert dishes which she placed on a cleared spot. Then she started to pick up the dinner plates at each place. Suddenly, my stomach did a flip. There was a fatal flaw in my clever plan! Why, oh, why did my family not have a dog that could sit under the table surreptitiously snarfing up table scraps?
Then, there it went--my plate lifted off the table and placed atop the stack my mother was compiling for her next trek back into the kitchen. And there they were--a perfect ring of mushrooms sitting where my plate had just been. I was deafened by the silence as everyone stared at the place in front of me. There might have been fairies dancing on the mushrooms, such was the shock on the faces around me. And then the shock turned to hoots of laughter. And there I sat--embarrassment and guilt burning to my core.
Of course, this became a family story, shared with laughter, shared at family gatherings to this day, usually brought up by one of my siblings in the way that families reminisce. I've told the story on myself to my children and my grandchildren when they objected to some food or another. I always end with, "So if you don't like it, just don't eat it, but leave it on your plate." I laugh along with everyone else, but here's the thing: this story makes me feel sad. It's because I remember that guilty feeling--it wasn't that I'd wasted food, or that I'd lied about liking mushrooms when I didn't, but because it was the first time I disappointed my father. Certainly, I disappointed him many times later in life so I guess the mushroom incident was a fairly benign way of introducing him to that concept. Frankly, it's not the inevitibility of disappointing my father that makes me sad. What bothers me is how primed and ready I was to ignore my own experience, deny my own feelings, silence my own voice. Yes, I respected my elders, as was expected and proper in those days, but how long would it take me to respect myself because, in the end, isn't that how we grow and mature and become ourselves--by giving up a need to please our parents and finding our own true way--whether at the dinner table or in the larger context of life.


  1. Just loved this post and could relate on just about all accounts.
    The only difference is that if it was on our plates, we stayed there till it was gone. Sometimes I had to wait till my bedtime to get a reprieve. Lots of memories. Very well written.

  2. Found this in those random links at the bottom of your post. I love this story and the bigger part of it about growing up.

    My trick was to put stuffed peppers in my pant cuffs. Remember in the 50s, boys grew into their clothes. I always had cuffs that could support an entire stuffed pepper, properly cut ups and distributed. Why my mother never noticed the greasy cuffs is beyond me. But out to the neighbors dog they went. He loved my mother stuffed peppers, as do I today. Weird change of tastes in my 40s, but by then my mother quit making them.

    Do you still hate mushrooms? I love them, but not that you mention it, they are slimy like a sliced snail!


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