I didn’t think it would end up where it started: at the kitchen table. And why would I? My parents had raised me with one set of guidelines for social correctness and now they were directly contradicting themselves. So what if I was barely a teenager? Hadn’t I earned sufficient years and experience to know right from wrong (at least in terms of how they defined it)?
Authority figures have always made me uncomfortable. To be clear, by uncomfortable I mean terrified. So there I sat, under the interrogation lamp, doing my best to stand straight and proud as my insides wretched. How long would this go on? This was the first time I had, to my memory, stood up to my parents, and the more pronounced my obstinance the longer the virtual waterboarding went. Minutes? Hours? I lost track. Oddly, I didn’t go to bed without dinner; that punishment was saved for the time I’d told my brother I wished he’d never been born.
We ate as a family. Every breakfast. Every dinner. Every lunch on the weekends and vacations. We were a traditional nuclear family in that respect (and many others). What was different—something I was only to learn in my late teens and early twenties as I went out into the world and saw that not every family unit behaved the same behind the safe confines of their front doors—was that my family gossiped. To be clear, my parents gossiped. My brother, sister (before she left for college), and I, typically enjoyed our dinner and made jokes. My parents, however, were mired in the internal workings of other people. Their flaws, their foibles, their humanity. Whether it be that family at the church that sat at the back barely paying attention and missing two Sundays a month, a fellow colleague and teacher at the high school, or some random stranger at the grocery store who left their cart in the middle of a parking spot, everyone was game.
I wasn’t immune either. I simply didn’t understand the hypocrisy was relegated to the dinner table. “Oh,” I’d said to my best friend at the time, Mr. C., “My parents don’t think much of your parents parenting at all.” It seemed very normal to me and why not? I’d been listening to these diatribes every evening for all of my speaking life. I was taught to always tell the truth and the truth is what was fair game at the dinner table so who was I to wonder whether or not it shouldn’t be appropriate on the playground. Of course what I didn’t calculate, and should not have had to, was that Mr. C’s dad was a trucker and truckers don’t take too kindly to other people talking smack of their parenting.
So there I sat, being ripped limb from limb, on the rack. “What’s said around the table stays at the table,” they told me. To which I’d respond, “That’s not what you taught me about honesty.” And then they’d go, “But what’s said at the table stays around the table.” And I’d respond, “But you taught me to always be honest.” And so on and so forth like a merry-go-round (for those of you in the younger generation that didn’t grow up with such things, a “merry” go round is a device on the playground that fits 6 – 10 kids which’s sole purpose is to spin as fast as possible with the intent of throwing your friends off into any nearby grass, saw dust, or fence available, put there to prevent them from permanent brain injury). No matter how many times they sternly said the same thing I sat straight on my chair, looking firmly ahead (but not at them), repeating myself as they repeated themselves. After about an hour or so (realistically speaking) they gave up. I wasn’t, as I’d feared, been reintroduced to my dad’s belt, but instead the entire situation evaporated as I’d caught them mid-coitus. I think they knew I was right, but they’ve never admitted as much, and probably never will.
To my friend Mr. C., I always thought your parents were cool. Their style was very different than my own. Maybe they didn’t value good grades as much, and there weren’t ritual spankings at birthday parties that were nothing more than a mere right of passage, but they cared for and loved you as much as mine did for me.
And so we open the doorways.