My father has this monster reel-to-reel tape player the size of a small refrigerator stashed quietly away in a corner of the rec room. It’s still working, and one of the surviving tapes is from a holiday dinner in the sixties at my grandparents’ house in Spokane; a little family archive. It starts out innocent enough, with my older brother, maybe about 6th grade-age, making armpit farts and such, then it cuts to actual dinner at the table and sixish-year-old me is laughing my head off about something. Joyful sounds at dinner. But then my dad asks me to stop; that’s enough. Only I can’t and I laugh harder until he gets angrier and the laughter dissolves to tears, which I also cannot stop. The tape ends.
We never got spanked in our house. We were however expected to be perfect, in deed and mood. And being human and children…well. To come under the disapproving glare of my father (The Look) was the equivalent of the torturous fires of hell. You felt like an ugly, unworthy worm. To be fair, there were many more good times than bad, we just lived under a nervous shadow of sorts. My father was an only child in a quiet, orderly house, and he brought his perfectionism, as it was called back then (I believe now it’s a form of OCD) to his grown-up family life. The tense holiday dinner scene is just a small sample of what it was like living with him, and was repeated year after year. We all tip-toed around his potential wrath, but somehow something would always go wrong; the carving knife wasn’t sharp enough, the salt shakers not full enough, the potatoes were too cold, turkey too dry, there was a spoon that didn’t match the others, I wasn’t smiling enough, the design on the china plates wasn’t in perfect visual line with the eater. Nothing was ever the picture-perfect Rockwell family meal he had in his head.
This year, as Joe and I, my brother, sister and their spouses sat at one end of the table Christmas dinner, finishing up our servings of salmon bisque I made for the occasion as a first course, because it was getting cold as my mom stood in the kitchen throwing some last-minute gravy together, my father jumped up and decided he needed a picture of all of us at the nicely set table. Only my brother-in-law had already put a manly slab of prime rib on his plate and started cutting up pieces to eat. This was cause enough for the disapproving dad brows to gather, storm clouds a brewin’, and for him to give up taking the picture because he didn’t want us eating yet (even though we already were eating the soup—as I pointed out to him in a not-so-patient voice-rising manner that I quickly brought down to avoid conflict because if anyone’s going to do it, it will be me). It was an eggshell moment. As my sister, brother and I steel ourselves against The Look, Joe obliviously shovels into the stuffing. Someone convinces my dad to take the shot, siblings nearly grimacing at disaster averted, stuffing on Joe’s plate, slab-o-beef on Wally’s. I’m sure it was a lovely shot.
At the end of the meal as some of the plates were being cleared and a few of us still sat talking, I grabbed the little Land o’Lakes butter tub. On any given day in my parents’ house if you pop the lid of this little bathtub shaped container you’ll find my father has carved the butter into a little mountain range, with the butter angled on two sides to form a perfect ridge in the middle. Having sat on the table during the meal it had softened nicely and was easy to flatten out completely, providing me with a smooth tablet to carve out HI DAD. I showed it to my giggling sister, and went over to my brother already washing dishes to show him on the sly. He laughed, then as realization struck said “Oh, no! He’s going to be so mad!” As I put the butter away in the fridge, my brother summoned me back with a psst, and under his breath said “Do you remember the toast buttering lessons?” How could I not? To this day I spread butter evenly all the way out to the edges, and have passed on the teachings to others. But I wasn’t worried about my father’s reaction to finding the tub after we were gone. My brother’s the only one who calls him ‘dad.’