The dining room of our big, old, drafty house was lined with cherry wood paneling and a builtin, cherry china cabinet.
We had a large oval-shaped table that had come from St. Louis during the 1920s westward push of our father's family.
It was made of oak, I think, and it had these great legs that looked like eagle claws. During the course of the week, it served as a pingpong table and a train table and as the Siegfried line where plastic armies of American GIs squared off against plastic armies of the Wehrmacht. But on Sunday, at exactly 6 o'clock, the table became a kind of altar to us all.
If it was a particularly special Sunday, the pads and tablecloth (actually, it was a bed sheet) would be used, and the mismatched wineglasses would be dusted off and set on the table, as well. And, of course, a rotation of Blessed Mother statues always served as the centerpiece, with statues of Saints Joseph and Patrick making their annual appearances every March.
On very special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, the hallowed “B” plates would be brought out from the china closet. You see, in another lifetime, my father's father was a man of means: a college-educated business executive in turn-of-the-century St. Louis who once made the astronomical sum of $12,000 per annum. Along with that kind of wealth came plates with the letter “B” emblazoned on them in gold leaf. Not exactly the stuff of Citizen Kane, but we always thought the plates were neat, even though with 10 kids, there were never enough of them to go around.
Our Uncle Rich always sat at one end of the table, and our dad always sat at the other end. When our uncle, Father John, was in attendance, he always sat to the left of Uncle Rich. Our mom always sat directly to our dad's right, and I, the “baby” of the family, always sat at my dad's left. This was not a good position to be in. For one, I could not easily retaliate against kicks to my shins by other family members without my father noticing. And, more importantly, it was extremely difficult to dispose of food I didn't want to eat. I can still feel the grip of my father's workingman's hand as it enveloped my closed fist under the table just as I was about to deposit some unwanted cooked carrots on the dining-room floor in the hope that the dog would discover them before my mother did.
We referred to grace as “Rule Six.” No one in my family remembers why. It was only one of a series of family idiosyncrasies created by our Uncle Rich.
Responsibility for leading the prayer always fell on the youngest at the table, still another part of the ancient regime whose genesis is lost to us. Being the youngest for the longest time, I remember embracing this heady responsibility with a sense of great pride. When my brothers and sisters started having children of their own, the “Rule Six” torch was then passed down the line.
Dinner itself was somewhat of a contact sport. It would always start off with Uncle Rich admonishing the assortment of “fuzzy headed high-school kids, punks and stoops” that the most efficient way to pass the platters of food was in an orderly, clockwise fashion, just like it was done in the eighth U.S. Army Air Corps. But, like a pack of unruly wolves in front of a freshly downed mule deer, hands appeared out of nowhere to hijack the plate of meat or potatoes, and chaos would ensue.
If things got too out of hand, and sometimes they did, our dad would restore order with either a look or a word. But generally our dad didn't seem to mind the chaos around the table. In retrospect, I think he received a kind of joy and grace from watching his children around the table eating the food he worked so hard to win for us.
All of us kids looked forward to the menu for Sunday dinner — the best cut of meat we were likely to see for a week. We had survived Friday's creamed tuna on toast, canned salmon or frozen fish sticks. We had finished Saturday's spaghetti with hamburger meat augmented by our mom's secret recipe of ketchup. Now it was Sunday, which meant roast beef or fried chicken or, on wonderful summer Sundays, T-bone steaks barbecued blood-rare by our dad. Life was good.
Before the first bite of roast beef was halfway down anybody's throat, though, talk quickly turned to the politics of the day. Living under the same roof with a New Deal Democrat (Uncle Rich) and a Dewey Republican (our dad) always meant sparks and fur and just about everything else would fly. Add Vatican II, Jesuit war protesters and the whiff of the death of Western civilization that the Beatles represented, and you pretty much covered every battle that was ever waged over that glorious old dinner table.
Many a time a brother or sister would bring a date to one of these events, and that would be the last we'd see of them. For others, like our eventual spouses, these Sunday events became a kind of baptism of fire. If they didn't run away screaming from the house, then they either had potential or were just poor judges of character. My wife received the Uncle Rich seal of approval when — in private, after dinner — he confided that the girl I brought to dinner was okay because she wasn't a “smart aleck.”
There never was any blood spilled during these dinners that, in turn, evolved into feasts, fratricide and farce. There were times when family members rose from the table in a full-blown Irish tiff and stormed away. But they always came back.
And when next Sunday came around, it would all start over again.
Robert Brennan is a television writer living in Los Angeles.