It was not often we, a family of six kids ranging from six months to fourteen years old (Eric was not yet born), were invited out to dinner at a friend’s house. A large number of chairs were required, for one thing. Sometimes two or three tables were necessary, too, depending on how many kids the hosts had. Forks, knives, spoons, plates, glasses, FOOD enough for an army were required; and then there were all the other considerations: ages, left handed vs. right handed orientation, who would be forced to sit by whom and behave the entire time.
A lot of practice went into learning how to dine politely. First, all boys and men had to have on dress shirts; not t-shirts, nor sweatshirts. No hats. Clean hands and faces. No tipping in our chairs, no leaning on the table. Napkins on our laps, not tucked in our shirts. No slouching. Wait with hands in our laps until all the food was on the table, and, at last, Mom (or hostess) sat down, and placed her napkin on her lap. Someone would be assigned to say Grace. Then, we could begin passing the serving dishes – always to the right after filling our plate.
Only after everyone had a chance to fill their plate, and, maybe, a toast was made, Mom would pick up her fork, and everyone could begin eating, and make conversation punctuated by please pass the biscuits, or butter, or gravy.
No one left the table without permission. You could ask to be excused if you cleaned your plate,
“May I be excused?”
“No, you can sit here with all of us for a while.”
“But, I have a lot of homework (read, I have a new comic book).”
“You should have done your homework earlier. Just fold your hands and sit here with us.”
And, of course, you did.
Ted and Steve, “the boys,” could, no matter how smoothly ironed their blue buttoned-down collared shirts, be gross to the point of making me sick. If sitting directly across from me, they would wait until I happened to look up. Then, as soon as my eyes met theirs, they would smile with big pieces of broccoli stuck in their teeth, or would quickly stick out their tongues with chewed up meat on them (“see food”), or would pretend to flick a booger across the table onto my plate; all while smiling sweetly at Mom and Dad who were chatting away at the other end of the table, oblivious to the growing torment.
Mom and Dad would look down the table with raised eyebrows. The boys would give wide eyed grins, shrug, and focus on their plates, and for a minute all was nice. But once I took the bait, I was had. The effort to drive me nuts would slowly, and surely, escalate. Disgusting burps would be followed by, “Oh, excuse me,” with polite hands across the offending mouths. The burps grew louder and more frequent until I couldn’t stand it anymore;
“MOM! They are bothering me!” <whining>
“Well, don’t look at them. Pay attention to your own plate.”
“But they’re bothering me!”
“Boys! Leave your sister alone!”
“Sorry, Mom, we were just eating our dinner. We didn’t know we were bothering her.”
The quiet torment would continue; soft, swinging kicks under the table, crossed eyes when I looked up to glare at them, them passing the salt back and forth between the two of them when I asked them to “please pass the salt.”
Finally, I would begin complaining loudly and crying, and Mom would say,
“Roxanne! You are excused from the table. Finish your dinner in your bedroom!”
I would take my plate, and eat at my desk, furious and humiliated. Sure that I was the most abused girl in the world. I didn’t learn until I was well into my 30’s that my brothers ate most of their dinners in their room, too, for tormenting me. HA! Justice!
But, back to the story about all of us being invited out to dinner.
The Gugliemettis were friends of Mom and Dad. I am told Mom and Dad’s favorite Italian sausage recipe, with which they would make pounds of spicy sausage while drinking wine with their friends and neighbors, was actually the Gugliemetti’s recipe. They might have been older, more the age of grandparents. They had no kids at home that I recall. They may have lived out by Mather AFB, where Dad was stationed. We had to drive to get to their house, so they were not near neighbors.
One day, when I was about seven years old, the Gugliemettis invited Mom, Dad, and all of us kids to come over to their house for dinner – a big Italian dinner with special spaghetti sauce, and, no doubt, a relish tray, and cheese and cracker hor d’oerves. I imagined there would be a green salad, and Kool-Aid, too, if not soda pop, which was a real treat (not a treatment, Mom would say). Mrs. G and Mom had most likely planned it all out. The grown-ups and big kids would sit at the main table, and we smaller kids would sit at the smaller, shorter table. There would even be a high chair for Ruth, who was just a baby.
I remember it was intriguing to think about having dinner at someone else’s house. I was a little worried it might not taste good. I mean, if it had Italian sausage in the spaghetti sauce, it could be pretty spicy, and I did not like spicy food. I hoped they would have garlic bread with lots of butter… mmm. I did like buttery garlic bread.
Most likely, because there were so many little kids, Mrs. G and Mom decided we would have dinner early. We all put on our clean, starched shirts and dresses, pulled on bright white socks and dress shoes, and light cardigan sweaters. All our hair was brushed and combed, shining and smooth. Those who were ready first waited on the couch, while Mom finished getting the little kids ready.
Finally, Dad came into the living room, clapped his hands and rubbed them together, looked around at all of us, excited. “Everyone ready?” Mom sashayed in, all decked out, and smelling good. Dad gave her a wolf whistle and a wink, squeezed her shoulders, then said, “Okay, everyone in the car!”
We all filed out, and climbed in the car. Mom and Dad sat up front, with Ruth, the baby, on Mom’s lap, and Bobby sat in the middle of the bench seat between them (this was before the laws requiring kids to be in car seats in the back). I sat in the back by the left window. I had to sit by the window, because I got car sick, and because I didn’t want anyone touching me. Mag sat next to me. Ted and Steve were squeezed on the right side of the back seat.
Off we went, Mom reminding us of the rules for visiting people’s houses: no running, no interrupting adult conversations, no making pigs of ourselves, pass to the right, wait for Mrs. Gugliemetti to start eating before we began, clear our plates from the table when excused. We had them down, all the rules. We were ready. And believe me, no one wanted to see Mom shoot a warning look to Dad, or to hear her snap her fingers. THAT would be then end of a lovely evening.
We must have made a pretty picture to anyone passing us. A jolly family, all clean and shining in a clean, shiny car with dazzling white walls, which the boys had, no doubt, spiffed up that afternoon before we left. A handsome Dad and a beautiful Mom singing along with each other…smiling kids. It promised to be a great dinner.
But then, without warning, catastrophe struck! It happened so quickly, there was not time to open a window, or for Dad to stop the car.
Ruth, the sweet baby girl sitting on Mom’s lap, gave a small whimper, then threw up all over Mom and the dash board. Bobby, sitting next to Mom, saw and heard Ruth throw up, and he vomited all over Dad, Mom, and Ruth in the front seat. Mag sitting next to me, tried to hold her nose, but it did not help. Mag threw up all over her pretty dress, and I threw up all over Mag, and the back seat. I do not know if Steve and Ted threw up, but it was a miracle, if they did not.
I am sure there was a lot of wailing going on in the car. Dad pulled the car over, and Mom and Dad helped us all out to line up close to the car, while they tried to soak up the puke with baby blankets and cloth diapers. Nothing could clear out the smell.
We were closer to the Gugliemetti’s house, than we were to our house, so there was nothing to do but to get back in the car, and keep going to the Gugliemetti’s. Dad stopped the car in front of their house, Mom picked up the baby, and Dad and she led our sour smelling, bedraggled group to the front door.
Mrs. Gugliemetti threw open the door with a big smile that quickly changed to dismay as she realized what had happened. I imagine Mom was just mortified, and probably wanted to just cry. Without delay, Mrs. G gave Mom and Dad quick hugs, took the baby from Mom, then rounded us all into their house. She brought us clean t-shirts, and soft sweatpants to wear while she piled all our ruined finery into her washer and dryer. Probably Dad and Mr. G went outside to clean and air out the car.
We were all encouraged to “have a seat, have a seat!” I have no doubt big glasses of wine were poured for Mom and Dad. Just as I had imagined, there were two tables with cheese and cracker hor d’oerves, pickles and olives and cheese on something called an antipasta tray… who was anti-pasta? A huge pot of spaghetti and sauce with grated cheese was produced. Most of us kids were still feeling too sick to our stomachs to really enjoy the great dinner. But we did relax, and felt at home, and our own clothes, warm from the dryer felt great.
We stopped for 7-Up on the way home, to soothe our sick stomachs.
It is true that were not too many invitations for all of us to come for dinner … but we always knew how to make an entrance.