The Precious Routine of Life

We ate at seven because the store closed at six and it took my father time to empty the cash drawers, roll up the awning, double check all the doors including the big steel door in the back where we got the big shipment every Tuesday, boxes and boxes to unload, rip open with box cutters and empty into neat stacks in the backroom. By 6:20 or so, he’d switch off the lights from the main box in the back and he’d walk down the aisles, all the merchandise covered with coarse sail cloth so as to avoid dust accumulating overnight. Thirty minutes later he would walk in the side door from the garage. It would be time for supper.

When something went wrong, well, really only one thing ever went wrong. When my mother got sick and had to go to the hospital, the hands on the clock stood still. It seemed wrong so I kept it a secret or would have had anyone asked how I was doing but my worry for my mother, whether she would get well soon and come home, was overpowered by my yearning for supper. The five place settings. Glasses at our places, coffee cups at theirs. Paper napkins folded in triangles and dessert set out in small saucers, a half inch of butterscotch pudding, a single canned peach.

Each time in my life has its own precious routine. When I was a single mother, my daughter and I ate supper at the kitchen table except on those nights when disorder and not caring left dishes in the sink from the day before. I fed her mac and cheese out of a box on a plate on her lap. She watched television while I lied on the couch, smoking cigarettes, my glass of cheapest white wine balanced on the bumpy carpeting. I was too tired for more, too fraught with leaving and being left. I knew the precious routine would give me comfort but comfort was not what I wanted. I wanted the yearning more.

Then, things brightened and we sat at a new table in a new nook in a new house, then we crowded in a high chair, then a booster seat, then we moved to the dining room and we set the table every night and each place had a napkin folded in a rectangle. We drank coffee at dinner, too. It was dinner now and not supper, supper having gone to the farmers to keep precious. Each of the three more children had their place added to the original girl’s, their dad and me at opposite ends of the table, being as if in a picture of dinnertime on a magazine cover or an ad for positive family development. When something went wrong, someone sick or gone, angry or silent, it was dinner I yearned for more than their recovery.

Now it is just the two of us. Sometimes we set the table in our nook, sometimes we eat off plates on our laps while watching television. When my children come home, we eat at the dining room table. It feels big and unnatural, unnecessary but I know they are wanting their seats, wanting to see us in our places. We may have shed the routine but it is still precious to them. And so we act out what was once how we anchored our lives. We are adrift now but we don’t want them to know that we are happy floating. So we sit at the big table and all is as they remember. It is the precious routine of life.


10 Comments on “The Precious Routine of Life

  1. Jan, I noticed a phone on the table in the picture which surprised me. I would have thought you would have a no electronics rule.

  2. 6:30 that is the time my dad arrived home from downtown, he waited for the traffic to get a little better but dinner was at 6:30 if he was late, too bad for him we ate without him, he did his best to get home and not get in trouble with my mother. Monday was always Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and creamed corn. so that there were meat loaf sandwiches for the rest of the week. Monday sandwiches would have been beef or chicken from the sunday lunch meal.

    Now the big family meals are at my house. Everyone has somehow settled into having a spot, I did not assign the spots, except I wanted the place close to the kitchen. Youngest person says the prayer. and recently one of the teens said to me, hey aunt Paula we should have a dinner at your house, it has been awhile. how interesting. How great.

  3. hm. so interesting to read and hear of your perspective; it really helps me to think about maybe how my parents might feel when i visit them at home. we do the same thing; we sit in our same places and my dad always cooks my favorite meal. even though i’m an adult and should be the one doing the cooking; my parents still cook when i’m home, knowing that i enjoy it so much, but also on their end, i think because this is how they show their love, through food.

    enjoyed this post, as so many of your others. keep writing. =)

  4. I love the detail on this one. I can smell the canned peach in syrup. I remember those also. And I can relate to nights where a proper dinner doesn’t make it to the table as a divorced mom. Funny how a ritual that used to be so sure, so certain, when we were kids becomes something it is entirely up to us to do or not do. There are days I wonder where the grownups went and then realize–that’s me:).

  5. I never thought about it before but there is something comforting about sitting around my childhood dining room table – my family in their traditional seats. It makes me feel young again and stirs up old family dynamics. Thanks for reminding me, Jan!

  6. A lovely piece full of contrasts and yet that one theme that pulls it together. Well done as always.

  7. I love this. When my husband was away for six months, we put my laptop at his place at the dinner table and did a Skype session. It helped keep the routine of our family strong and made the long days apart a little more manageable. 🙂

    Right now we are implementing a “family walk time” after dinner each night, which is turning out to be my favorite part of the day. We just kind of amble together and tear around the neighborhood. The kids chase one another and we catch up, able to have an adult conversation for a moment or two. It’s a good routine before the chaos of bedtime routines, and I hope we are able to keep that tradition strong for decades to come.

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