The Dinner Table
Dinner at 29 Alpha Road was a formal occasion. My family sat around an antique oak table in a wood-panelled room every night of the week. The ten-seater table was the perfect size for our family of four. We preferred to sit next to no one.
My daily task was to set the table with the silverware and crystal glasses kept locked in an eight-foot-tall, walnut dresser. The dresser, filled with inherited treasures and my parents’ wedding gifts, loomed over us as we ate. I could feel the ghosts of its previous owners in the room, keeping watch over their belongings. The cut glass windows and sterling silver handles of the dresser rattled as I put the key in the lock, sending a shiver through my forearm. What if something broke on my watch?
Every accoutrement, from salt boat to silver spoons had to be in its place on the table. I would move a vase of fresh flowers from the mantelpiece to its centre, and only then could dinner be served.
It was like dinner at the van der Luydens in The Age of Innocence, minus the servants and New York society friends. Like the families in Edith Wharton’s novel, we adhered to social form as a way to fill the spaces left by the absence of intimacy at our dinner table.
My father would sit at the head of the polished oak table, mother at the tail. My brother and I perched either side. Our places were set above drawers that slid into the table’s frieze. I spent the dinner hour fiddling with the ornate brass handle of my drawer, nervously clicking the metal backing. Clicking helped distract from the emptiness in my chest carved out by unfulfilled expectations. The drawer was home to my placemat and a linen napkin held in a silver ring embossed with my name and the shield of my private school for girls. I regularly shoved Brussel sprouts, fat from lamb chops, and other unwanted bits of food to the back of the drawer. I would wait for a quiet moment in the next twenty-four hours to sneak back into the dining room, retrieve the scraps, and throw them into the garbage. Creeping around in the dead of night to scoop the food from the back of the drawer felt safer than risking my mother’s ire for leaving it uneaten on the plate.
My mother always took charge of who ate how much of what.
“I’m still hungry, can I please have another sausage?” I would ask in my little-girl voice.
“Wait fifteen minutes. When your food digests, you’ll be full.” My mother would reply.
“There’s only two sausages left; one for your father, and one for your brother,” she might answer, placing her folded napkin back in her drawer. “I’m going without second servings, so you can too.” Her mind was made up.
Luckily, suffocation by form, tradition and gendered portion sizes was not the full story of dinner time in our house. It was also when I saw my father. His long day at the hospital was finally cast aside when he sat down at the table. He was all ours for a full hour. He did the talking. After all, as my mother would remind us when we tried to speak, my father was the one with an interesting life.
Over sausages and mash with lashings of gravy, my father recited details of his day that were of interest to him alone. I didn’t care about the stories. I only cared that he was home with us, sitting at the head of the table.
“Mrs. Beatle’s cochlear implant malfunctioned and I had to re-operate,” he would explain, wiping sauce from his lips with a clean white napkin.
“A dangerous foreign body made me late all day.” Sometimes there were real emergencies. “The internal bleeding drenched the vocal cord as I tried to cut the nodules.” Illness and death were popular topics at our family dinner table. From tracheotomies to an out-of-order elevator, my father reported all the events of his day in the same tone of voice.
No one asked what happened next. We heard these stories or ones just like them many times. We knew them by heart. Children swallowed peanuts and ten cent coins; old people developed tumors and took turns for the worse. The fresh wounds of the day’s operating schedule opened and bled. Any number of things could result in death if my father didn’t drop what he was doing and attend to his patients. But, once he was sitting at the dinner table, the phone rang unanswered.
“They’ll call back if it’s important,” my father would say, mopping up sauce on his plate with bread.
Over dessert he began to dream. “The Trans-Siberian Express has re-opened after flooding in Novosibirsk,” he would announce, looking up as if through the window of the train. The citrus burst of the clementine he was peeling would fill the air with exoticism, and we were already there, in Novosibirsk.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” my mother announced with traces of disgust in her voice. “No one’s going to Russia.” … Or China, … or Peru, or wherever happened to be on the itinerary that night at dinner.
“You’ll give them ideas.” My mother would scold my father as she stood up and walked out of the dining room. Dinner was over.
I assumed that everyone sat at a dinner table cowering from one parent and chasing a promised connection with the other.
At my twenty-year school reunion, Caroline Demaggio raised the topic of Mary Masden’s home life.
“Remember when Mary came to school with her face all puffy?”
“Vaguely,” I responded.
“Which time?” Anne McCarthy asked, nonchalantly taking a sip of white wine.
“It happened all the time. Her father was a rage-a-holic and screamed his way from Mary’s Christening through to her graduation.”
“He hit her?” I was agog.
“I don’t know about hitting, but it was common knowledge that he was always angry and shouting.”
“It was? I had no idea.”
Did I block out the traumatic incidents in my schoolmates’ lives? I have only one memory of Mary Masden turning up at school with puffy red eyes and blotches all over her face. It was on the day that Mrs. Gribble, our grade five teacher, pursed her lips and pulled a powder puff out of her bag. She walked straight to Mary’s desk, put her arm around her shoulders and led her out of the room. We nine year olds were in the habit of making fun of Mrs Gribble and her powder puff. But the day her arm encircled our tearful friend, our eyes followed the two of them to the door without a word. When they disappeared into the corridor, we nervously turned back to our books, letting our hair fall over the fear in our eyes. We knew this was deadly serious, even if we weren’t sure why.
“It was like that in my family too,” Joyce Hansen started. “Dinner was the most frightening time of the day. My sisters and I sat in silence, watching and waiting for my father to explode. Will he, won’t he? We girls, including my mother, were struck dumb with fear. I remember watching his fork move from the plate to his mouth. Only when his mouth was full, did I let out the breath I was holding.”
“Was it always like that?” I asked.
“That was the problem, we never knew if or when he would start. I could hardly eat for the anxiety and panic in my stomach. But not eating was also likely to set him off. I learnt very quickly that if I stayed silent, I could disappear in plain sight.”
“My family was the same,” Lorna Asprey began. “He would sit at the head of the table, and my brother and I had to sit an arm’s length either side of him.”
“Why arm’s length?” I asked.
“He liked to reach out and stroke the back of my hair, resting his hand on my cheek. Within seconds, his hand would be raised to strike. He would whack me over the head if I said or did the slightest thing to displease him. I spent my childhoold trying to mould myself into the girl he wanted, the one who did and said what would keep him happy.”
“Did your mother try to stop him?”
“She was too exhausted. She worked all day in a dentist’s office and then had to come home and cook. Dinner had to be on the table at 7pm sharp, every night. If she was five minutes late, he would shout obscenities in between shots of whiskey. ”
No wonder we all developed eating disorders.
I turn to art in search of insight into the childhood vulnerability of my generation. I saunter down to a nearby Paris gallery to see an installation of Chen Zhen’s Round Table (1997). Chairs in all shapes and sizes, for children and adults, Asian and Western, are perfectly inserted into the top of two conjoined, fragmented tables. It’s not possible to take a place at the table; the seats of the chairs are merged with the table top. The chest height of the table is as unsettling as the fact that we look but are prohibited from sitting. There’s no getting comfortable around this table. The title of Chen Zhen’s installation includes the words “side by side,” but approaching the table I am overcome with a feeling of isolation. Participants are shut out of the dinner conversation. The table visualizes the Chinese artist’s immigrant experience: no place to sit down, no place to belong in two ill-fitting cultures, two warring political systems.
The installation reminds me of 29 Alpha Road. I recall the sturdy, priceless antique, and with it, the discomfort of sitting in a chair at the dinner table of my childhood. No one is by my side, and I am perpetually squeezing, hiding, sneaking. I am hungry. People of all shapes, sizes, ages, and cultures are meant to come together at the dinner table. Here, there is no togetherness. Each to their own. Coexistence is a state of routine uneasiness.
I sit on a brick wall overlooking the river Seine with my urban family of five Anglo-American expats. Our bread and cheese lunch has been lovingly wrapped by our favorite boulangère in his custom-printed paper. We indulge in the closeness and connection of unfilial friends, without a table.
“What was dinner like in your family when you were growing up?” I throw out the question before unwrapping my sandwich.
“In my house, there was no dinner time,” Joseph, a fellow Australian, speaks first. “Everyone was on their own. I would have given anything for a mother at home preparing dinner. My father left when I was three and my mother worked two jobs to keep us afloat. She was never there.”
“So what did you do for dinner?” I ask.
“I dunno. Made a sandwhich,” Joseph holds his sandwhich in the air. “And I’m still eating sandwhiches,” he laughs awkwardly.
“My mother always told us that dinner was about coming together, a time of sharing, belonging to the family,” I reflect.
Joseph smirks. “Is that what it was like?”
“I don’t know. We all sat around the table together. That part my family got right.”
“And the rest?” Charlotte, my friend from the American mid-west pipes up.
“It wasn’t like Leave it to Beaver, if that’s what you mean. Still, at the time, I didn’t know any better. At least Mother fed us and Father didn’t hit us.”
“That’s not enough to make a happy family,” Joseph turns to me, checking my reaction. “Did you watch Leave it to Beaver?” He continues. “I’m sure that show was created to make us all feel as though we were doing it wrong.”
“Or that if we did it right, we too could be the perfect American family,” I add.
“Even though we were Australian!” Joseph laughs.
“Looking back, I think my family was closer to the one in that Danish film, Celebration.” Laura muses. She is a successful fashion designer who came to Paris for an internship twenty-five years ago and never returned to Britain. She tears a tiny corner from her baguette but doesn’t eat.
“Is that the film that opens with the birthday party?” I ask. I look into Laura’s eyes to avoid watching her nervous fiddling with the bread.
“Yes. In a weird way, we had a lot in common with that family,” Laura says. “They voiced everything that went unsaid around our dinner table.”
“Really? Your family was like that?” Joseph sounds surprised. He takes an enormous bite of his sandwhich, and pickled cucumber pieces fall into the waxed paper.
“We weren’t stunningly gorgeous and we didn’t live in an idyllic country house. No. But there were traumas seething under the surface of every pleasantry. It was British stoicism at its best.” Laura stares at the river, her face showing no emotion.
“I remember how uncomfortable that film was,” Joseph says.
“It’s difficult to watch,” I agree.
“Remember the woman who reads the suicide note left by her sister?” Joseph refers to one of the film’s most disturbing sequences.
“Of course. While her adult brother sucks on his fork like a two year old,” Laura grimaces. It is the first emotion she has shown us since the conversation began.
“He’s traumatized by the letter,” Joseph suggests.
“Because it’s his twin sister who killed herself,” Amanda interjects loudly.
“Then he makes a speech revealing that the father sexually abused him and his sister when they were children,” Charlotte chimes in. “That film is too much.”
“It’s interesting that we have all seen the movie,” I say. “I wonder what it says about us?”
The others ignore me; their attention is focused on Laura.
“I don’t think my family was that dysfunctional,” Laura adds. “It was the secrets my mother and father kept that made everything so stressful at the dinner table. Even if they had no idea of their guilty existence.”
“What were dinner parties like in your house?” Joseph asks Laura.
“They rarely happened in mine, but when they did, they weren’t like that!” I interject.
Celebratory dinners at 29 Alpha Road were great fun because guests broke the rules. I was secretly elated when they left food on their plates. My face went hot with delight if someone picked up the chicken bones with their fingers. I remember when my father’s registrars came for dinner; they ate more than two clementines and talked with their mouths full. My mother was unable to sit still and didn’t know where to look. Her face crumpled like a piece of paper as the rules that kept the family connected unraveled. I suspect this is why we rarely had guests.
“They were painful,” Laura responds. “I remember sitting with my legs stuck to the seat, hoping and praying that my father wouldn’t embarrass me, or that my brother wouldn’t make racist jokes. I was riddled with guilt and shame in the presence of my family. For many years, I assumed that I belonged somewhere else, not there, in that family.”
“It’s true,” Charlotte responds. “You belong with us.”
“I agree. We all belong together on a wall, like migratory birds,” I add wistfully.
As a university student in the 1980s, I was both fascinated and apalled by the photos of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I stole into the library and pulled the book from the shelf, checking to see that no one was watching from behind the next stack. If I heard footsteps, I stuffed the book back on the shelf, hoping I hadn’t been seen. I loved the idea of a dinner party of women, but the vulva plates were scandalous to my naïve eyes. At 29 Alpha Road, displays of sex and sexuality were complicated. I never saw my father run a hand up my mother’s leg, steal a passionate moment while doing the dishes, or make eye contact across a room. Desire was satisfied with ice cream and alcohol. Bodies were best kept at a distance. Maybe that explains why I felt embarrassed when I looked at images of The Dinner Party. Maybe that’s why dinner was filled with unexplained tension.
I had never heard of most of the women at Chicago’s table, but my art history teacher explained that they were famous and they collaborated in the fight for equality. I wondered if equality meant that Virginia Woolf was allowed a second serving of sausages?
“I grew up in a female household. It was like a coven,” Amanda, another British expat friend, begins.
“It was my mother, her sister, their mother and me. All the attention at dinner was on my aunt. My grandma would place the meal before my aunt and her eyes would fill with disgust. She’d say things like ‘This looks like vomit, I can’t eat it.’ She would balance a single pea on her fork and, after it reached her mouth, she would say, ‘I’m so full I can’t possibly eat another thing.’ Then my grandma would yell. ‘eat your dinner, you ungrateful child, or you’ll get a spanking!’ Food has always been laced with humiliation for me.” I hear the rustle of wax paper and look down to see Amanda’s shaking hand.
Contrary to the message of Chicago’s installation, the raising of women’s voices at Amanda’s childhood dinner table didn’t bring much equality to her relationship with food and family.
I turn to Charlotte, my dear friend from the American mid-west, and ask “What was it like at your dinner table?”
“Ask my sisters that question and they will entertain you for hours,” she laughs.
“Tell us everything!” Amanda’s facial expression changes from solemn introspection to open excitement.
“Dinner was a battlefield. Often, someone would throw potatoes in a fit of anger. Some nights, there were so many potatoes flying that it was like trying to eat dinner with torpedoes whizzing past my ear. Then one of my brothers would beat up on me or my sisters. My eldest sister Sue would start screaming at the boys for deigning to have an opinion she didn’t share. Sue was a bully and she screamed at everyone—including my dad. She was unrelenting in her struggle to have everyone do as she wanted. If one of us dared to retaliate, Sue might pick up a whole plate of food and hurl it the length of the table. There was screaming and crying and showers of fuck yous on a near nightly basis. My step mom just sat there telling my father to do something. He had no idea of how to be a parent. He kept telling us that if we didn’t stop shouting and throwing things, he would turn us out onto the streets. I can still hear him, ‘and don’t bother coming back.’ He was all talk, no action. It was insanity.”
On her fifteenth birthday, Charlotte left home and lived in her car.
Charlotte’s story reminds me of visits to the family next door, at number 31 Alpha Road. As I entered, the screen door slamming shut behind me, Michael, the only boy of nine siblings, might be crouched on the table licking the chocolate icing from the cake, like a cat. Or Peter, the eldest girl Helen’s boyfriend, would be sitting back in the recliner, pouring himself schnapps and beer chasers from the father’s liquor cabinet. The girls would be screaming, while the parents were tuned out to the chaos. It was as though they had been drugged before being placed in their chairs ready for the performance. I loved the mayhem; everyone did what they wanted. I loved it because it wasn’t my family. For them, it must have been hell. They were like captive animals, desperate to be loved or let out.
Today, only five of the ten siblings are alive. The other half of the family, including the parents are dead from addiction to one substance or another.
Sitting on the wall overlooking the Seine, I ask my friends, “Do you think there are people who experience love and intimacy at the dinner table?”
“My guess is that if you spend long enough with any family, you will find dysfunction,” Charlotte proclaims.
“Do you think it’s just our generation?” I ask, pausing. “It could also be an Anglo-American thing. The French love dinner time; they spend hours eating together.”
“That doesn’t mean that all French families are functional,” Amanda adds. “If my in-laws are anything to go by.” She rolls her eyes.
Silence descends over the five of us perched on the wall.
In Orson Welles’s film, Citizen Kane, the rising tensions between Kane and his first wife are shown by the growing distance between their seats at the table. A creeping coldness pushes them apart, the camera moving further back, until eventually, they sit silently alone at each end of a long table. I have always related to this scene. Even if I enjoy sitting on a wall, connected to my urban family over baguette and cheese. Dinner at a distance from my table companions and framed by formality is a logical way to guard against the emergence of unwanted emotion. It’s how I was raised.
Frances Guerin is an Australian living in Paris where he teaches avant-garde film and visual culture. He has published five books on film, photography and visual culture, and many articles, interviews and essays. His creative writing has been published in Midnight Masquerade, The Ekphrastic Review, Hecate and Herstry, among other magazines and anthologies.