My husband and I use the evening meal to battle peer pressure, technological invasions on childhood, the pull of extracurricular activities, and all the sundry forces that drag families apart. And though we mean for it to be a bonding experience to build happy memories, it can be brutal. I generally burn some portion of dinner. We referee heated disagreements over who started talking first. And the kids endure my constant pestering to get their elbows off the table, use their napkins, chew with their mouths closed, hold their forks correctly, and the list goes on.
Just when I think they're beginning to outgrow my influence on them, and that I will never get them trained, they make it painfully apparent that they still observe my every move.
"This is how a lady eats," my seven-year-old daughter announced from the far end of the table. She stabbed a bite of salad with her fork, opened her mouth, extended her tongue like a giraffe, brought the leaves in past her lips and closed, chewing exaggeratedly.
"How do you know how a lady eats?" her nine-year-old brother accusingly asked.
"I watched Mama," she defended herself.
Ouch. I raised my eyebrows and gave her a look . . . THE look.
"You're right," exclaimed another brother. "Mama does eat like that." He gave his own unflattering demonstration, tongue a-gaggle, not very ladylike at all.
For years, I've toiled to teach them etiquette and prided myself in modeling manners for them. "I eat like that?" I said, disbelief coating my words.
"Yes ma'am," my oldest child confirmed. "Take a bite. We'll watch you and tell you how you look."
Despite quite obviously having the table turned on me, both literally and figuratively, I daintily nibbled a bit of sustenance, using the manners I demand of them at every meal.
"There she goes," giggled the 11 year-old. "She's doing that thing with her tongue."
I didn't think I did anything unusual with my tongue. It's not like it wagged down my chin or licked my plate or slurped around the circumference of my mouth, all things I've seen them do with their own tongues. To me, it felt like my tongue was tucked neatly inside of my mouth, waiting patiently for the presentation of food in the privacy of the closed orifice.
"You chew so slowly," whooped the nine-year-old, adding insult to injury. "This is how you look," and he showed me, masticating like a bored cow chewing its cud.
"What about, now?" I asked, and ate another forkful. They commented and gave me advice. "How about this time?" I tried again. They shook their heads and chortled amongst themselves.
No matter what adjustments I made, having them look again and again, between their various imitations and laughter, they claimed it always looked the same. After roasting me for 10 minutes or more, the 11-year-old consoled, "Don't be self-conscious about it, Mama. It's really not bad unless someone looks at you closely. Besides, you're eating like a lady."
Regardless of his kind reassurance, I am self-conscious. Paranoid would actually describe it better. Afraid to eat in public ever again. Agoraphobic. And, worse, no matter what I do, I cannot change their impression of me and my eating habits.
But, it is a small price I pay, insisting that my family sit down together for the evening meal, to knot the ties that bind. I retaliated by saying, "I love to see y'all getting along so well with each other.
They immediately resumed their disagreements over who was interrupting who.
(Lucy Adams is a syndicated columnist, freelance writer, and author of If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny. She lives in Thomson. Lucy invites readers to e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her web site, www.IfMama.com.)