Stories: When Do We Get To Eat

When do we get to eat?
by Donna Day © 2020

Perched near the top of the staircase, I could see a large turkey flanked by stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, Grandmother’s rolls, her exquisite mashed potatoes oozing with butter, garden-fresh green beans, and piles of huge, luscious tomatoes.   Her traditional Thanksgiving feast spread was out on the dining room table, ready for us, steaming hot!  My eyes, as usual, focused on the mashed potatoes, my favorite made all the more precious by only being available to me on Thanksgiving. (Mother was not a proponent of butter or mashed potatoes.)  As usual, I planned to make the best of this rare opportunity. My strategy was to wait until everyone had been served and seconds were being passed around the table.  When the bowl of white and golden lusciousness came to me, I would announce, “Would anyone like more potatoes?”  

Quite often, there was either no reply or a “No, thank you.”  This was my moment; I would forge forward spoon in hand to quickly move all of the potatoes from the bowl to my plate.  Grandmother would beam and say, “You sure do love my potatoes, Donna!”  My response was often a joyous nod, my mouth being otherwise occupied.  

Why, you might ask, was I near the top of the staircase daydreaming about the food rather than at the table when it held such treats?  Why was no one at the table?  It had to do with my Dad, a man of habits and traditions.  Years prior, he had bought a camera and undertook a solemn commitment to himself to document every family occasion.  The other grandchildren and I were well trained in his sacred routine which proceeded like this:  Grandmother, the other women, and we girls would prepare and place the feast on the table.  Once in place, this tantalizing food was not to be touched.  Its role was far more vital than merely sustenance.  Our Thanksgiving feast was a necessary part of the traditional photo.   Our role was to stand on the staircase in formation while Dad set up his tripod and camera since we starred in the second photo, “Children on the staircase.”  I never did figure out why the setup could not be done while the meal was cooking, but life has its mysteries and we all have our ways.  

At 8, I was the oldest so I stood at the top of the stairs, the wise, elder grandchild, smiling down on my “little” cousins.  We were not supposed to move once we were in place lest we spoil the photo.  Ever willing and able to entertain myself, I visualized a dramatic scene in which I starred. 

Quietly, ever so slowly, I took turns sticking my legs between the banisters and imagining my knees would suddenly break open the banisters and I would fly down to eat that magnificent feast, especially the mashed potatoes!  

This was a time in my life when my dreams focused on various styles of flying so this day dream flowed naturally as a welcome diversion from hunger pangs.  My downfall came when Dad announced he was finished and I discovered I literally could not move.  My left leg was stuck in the banister.  Ever the dramatic one, I enjoyed my dilemma, the fuss over me, and the suggested solutions from aunts, cousins, and uncles.  I was the center of attention!  Mother put an end to that; she marched up the stairs and pulled my knee free.  This process of freeing my leg was none too pleasant for me, involving as it did a most painful yank.  Clearly, it was time to eat!

This experience was written from my perspective as a child.  My adult eyes see beyond the mashed potatoes to a grander picture.  My Grandmother’s identity was tied to her abilities as an outstanding cook. She would be likely to have been deeply offended by Dad’s ritual which rendered her steaming-hot food warmish at best.  All of the adults could have complained about this bizarre behavior, being expected to stand around and wait and watch the ritual.  Despite many reasons to be annoyed with my Dad’s behavior, no one ever complained.  They all just stood there and waited calmly.  Hugging and words of love were not their way. They demonstrated their deep respect for my Dad, and showered their love for him through their patient, peaceful silence.