Dinner Is Served

Family dinners are hard work, but worth it in the long run.

I consider myself a fairly generous person.

I give to charity, volunteer on a regular basis, sub in Pickleball when someone is in a jam, wave cars into traffic when I’m in a good mood, and watch dogs for my sisters and friends when they’re on vacation.

Just don’t ask me to share my food.

I like to order my own meal when I go out to eat, and I have a strict hands-off policy with my plate. My family knows this, but my friends are always a little surprised when they suggest splitting an entree, and I bark, “I don’t do that.”

My friend Johnny B. recently treated me to lunch, and suggested splitting a caprese salad as an appetizer. It sounded like a good idea until I mentioned that I planned to order nachos as a main course.

“So we’ll split the nachos too,” he said.

Um, no. I made it clear the nachos were just for me. If he wanted a main dish, he was on his own.

He eventually ordered the caprese salad and made a meal of it with some Italian bread. (I declined his offer to steal a tomato or two, what with my heaping plate of nachos on the way.)

We were both happy because we had our own meals, and didn’t have to worry about anyone grabbing a bite or two. This is a concern when out with people who never seem happy with their own dish, eying yours until you finally relent and offer them a sample.

I’m not sure why I have such strict rules about my food, but I think it stems from growing up in a family of seven children and always worrying that the food might run out. Some of this concern was certainly justified: my mother had 12 large bottles of soda delivered every Thursday and by Saturday, everything was gone except the dreaded bottle of birch beer.

Growing up, we had the same seats at the dining room table every night, and I was the 7th of 9 people to be served. Thinking back on it, it would have been fair to switch directions for the serving dishes, but we never did. It began with my father at the head of the table and moved to his right around the table. (Mom was naturally the last to serve herself.)

As the serving dishes moved counter clockwise, I watched as pieces of chicken, roast beef or veal cutlets were snapped up by siblings who had better spots in the rotation. And though there was always plenty of food, the fear of being gypped of rations is hard to shake.

Today, I’m admittedly the world’s worst food sharer. I don’t even share at a tapas restaurant, which is based on the concept of ordering several small plates to share rather than feasting on a single entree.

Several years ago, I went to a tapas restaurant in New Haven, CT., with friends, who suggested ordering several small plates. I refused to go along with it, insisting on ordering an entree while others feasted on tapas.

“No one comes to a tapas restaurant and doesn’t share,” someone sniped. “That’s the point of it, in case you didn’t know that.”

But here’s the thing: we’ve all been out with people who order something, and then spend the entire time nibbling on other people’s food. As the Curmudgeon, who is even more possessive of his food than I am, points out: “If I order five scallops, I expect to eat five scallops. I don’t want anyone depriving me of that.”

Some families avoid this predicament by serving food in prescribed portions, ensuring that there is always enough to go around.

I’d never seen food plated until I began dating the Curmudgeon, whose mom doled out the food. Standing at head of the table, she parceled out pieces of swordfish or filet mignon in modest servings at family gatherings.

She always took pains to give smallish servings of the main dish so there would be plenty to go around for seconds. Yet her strategy always baffled me: why not just give everyone twice as much so they were satisfied the first time around?

My family was strictly family style, piling the food on plates and passing it around the table rooming-house style. It was a bit of a free for all, but I understand my mother’s thinking: who would want to plate nine dishes every night?

We had a strict dinner hour that began at 6, and you were expected to show up every night. If my father was running late, he’d call my mother and tell her to start dinner without him, but he tried to make it home most nights.

This is in stark contrast to my own dinner hour, which has fallen victim to sports schedules, CCD, bar association meetings, tennis clinics, softball games, dog training classes and bowling outings over the years.

I’m a mom who cooks every night and relishes the thought of family dinners, yet feels lucky if we all sit down for a meal twice a week. We’re one of those American families who’s skipping the all-important dinner meal together, though I wish we could pull it off more often.

When I asked my son if he planned to join us for a homemade meal of lasagna last week, he responded: “I’m eating dinner, but I don’t know when it will be. This is my night to go bowling. I thought you realized that by now.”

I’ve decided that family meals must be made a priority, much like attending Sunday Mass, walking the dog or visiting elderly relatives. Left to chance, it’s just too easy for the dinner hour to disappear. Studies show that families who eat dinner together produce happier, more productive kids.

According to the Family Dinner Project:

 Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.

Family meals don’t just happen like they did in the old days. On any given day at 6 p.m., my daughter is beginning cross country practice and my husband is at the Y, so I must make it a priority if I expect to break bread with my family more often.

Dinner is very important to me, perhaps because it was such an intricate part of my life growing up. My dad cared so much about the dinner hour that he took time out to call my mom to say he’d be late.

Having dinner with the family was a priority, a time to catch up on the day’s events and rehash the headlines. Something is missing without that touchstone, though I know a lot of families struggle with the same problem.

So I’m setting a dinner hour at 7:30 this summer and hope it will be honored. I don’t have high hopes, but I’m trying. And if someone can’t make it, I expect a phone call.

Group Hug

Is your family hugging enough?

I’ve been off the grid lately, and I’m sorry.

My son came home from college, leaving a trail of belongings all over the house. The mom of a close friend of mine died, and the next day, I heard that a cloistered nun I’d befriended had passed away too.

As my father reminded me when my mother-in-law passed away at age 72, death is difficult. My father was not a hugger nor the touchy-feely sort. But when he and my mother showed up unexpectedly at the tiny church on Martha’s Vineyard for my mother-in-law’s funeral in 2004, he put his hands squarely on my shoulders and tearfully reminded me that funerals are hard.

I still remember that encounter 15 years later because it was so unusual for my father. That wasn’t his style, and he was always a little uncomfortable with physical signs of affection. He’d gladly accept a kiss on the cheek when we were little girls, but he told me on several occasions that he grew up in a house where people didn’t hug or kiss each other often.

“We weren’t like your mother’s family, where there is all this hugging and kissing when they get together,” he’d say.

The final scene of people hugging each other at Heathrow Airport in “Love Actually” gives me chills.

I couldn’t tell if he was jealous of my mom’s demonstrative Irish clan, but I suspect he was at some level. There’s something wonderful, reassuring and comforting about a hug when you’re feeling sad or needy. In some ways, a hug is the ultimate way of saying, “I understand, and I’m here for you if you need anything,” or “Boy, I’m really happy to see you.”

Since most of us are a product of our upbringing, I grew up wary and uncomfortable around hugging. I stiffened when huggers approached, uncertain if I should slip in a peck on the cheek, just stand there or reciprocate. I was uncomfortable because hugging isn’t something my family did upon greeting people. We were kissers – a quick peck on the cheek when grandparents or aunts and uncles visited from New York.

I never realized there were hugging families until I met the Curmudgeon’s tribe.

My mother-in-law was an enthusiastic hugger who greeted everyone, including relative strangers, with a huge embrace upon meeting them. Early in our relationship, she realized that I was uncomfortable with hugging and would give me a reluctant hug when we’d meet. Eventually, she announced that she knew I didn’t like hugs, so she’d spare me the torture of her embrace.

I could tell she was perplexed by my reaction to her hugging, and this made the whole situation even more stressful for me. To be clear, it’s not that I disliked hugging or her. It’s just that I was uncomfortable around it because I didn’t grow up in a family of huggers.

Looking back on it, I don’t really understand what my problem was, but I suppose I was a product of my environment. I’ve tried to show my children a lot more physical affection with hugs, but guess what? Neither is particularly fond of me hugging them. For that matter, neither is the dog, who runs away from me when I try to hug her.

My daughter often swats me away when I move in for a hug. My son hugs me when leaving for college or an extended vacation, but otherwise I must initiate a hug if I want one. And let’s face it, there are only so many times you can ask a 21-year-old for a hug without feeling a little needy.

I asked both kids why they don’t hug a lot, and they replied, “We’re not the huggy types.” My daughter seemed more perplexed about her stance than my son, but I hope she doesn’t feel bad about the situation. She’s young, and can certainly develop an affinity for it with time.

I certainly hope both kids’ become more comfortable with hugging because I’ve realized that they’re a very good thing. In fact, I think the world would be a much better place if people were more generous with them.

Research suggests that we need about eight hugs a day for optimum health and happiness. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-5756/10-Reasons-Why-We-Need-at-Least-8-Hugs-a-Day.html. I don’t know about you, but I’m falling a little short in this department, and have a lot of catching up to do.

My daughter, right, in a group hug with her cross country team. With me, she’s not as generous.

I’ve learned that when push comes to shove, most people are incredibly receptive and appreciative of a hug, particularly when they’re suffering with the grief accompanying the death of a loved one. I’ve learned that hugs transcends words, conveying thoughts and emotions that are impossible to get across with speech.

As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten much more generous with hugs because I realize their value. When I’m at a loss for words – I know, when has that ever happened? – a hug is a simple way of saying, “I know. I understand how you’re feeling because I’ve felt that way too. I’m here for you if you need anything.”

I’m not sure I qualify yet as a super hugger, but I’ve been surprising myself lately dispensing hugs to strangers – something I’d never have done 10 years ago.

The first recipient was the former colleague of my two friends who accompanied us to a Red Sox game in Boston. I’d just met her, and well, it seemed like the right thing to do. Everyone else was hugging, so why not? I even slipped in a second one when we left her place in Cambridge the next day.

The other hug went to the sister of the nun who had just died. She was staying at the monastery for a few days after the funeral before flying back to her home in Nebraska.

She approached me in the lobby to ask me a question. As I looked in her eyes, I instantly knew that she was the deceased nun’s sister. Their resemblance to each other was striking.

“Are you Sr. Joan’s sister?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” she said. “You know, I worried about her being lonely when she was sick, but I’ve realized that there were so many people who loved her and with her before her death,” she said. “I feel so much better knowing she was around people who loved her.”

As the conversation ended, I extended my arms and hugged her. I had just met her, yet it seemed like the right thing to do. But just in case she was leery, I issued a warning: “I’m going to give you a hug if you don’t mind.”

She didn’t mind. In fact, she hugged me back. And in that moment, I knew that it was the right thing to do. I was following my gut and instincts, not standing on ceremony or overthinking. And when you do that, you know that a hug is the only thing in the world that will do.

Big Magic

Deb cheers on the Red Sox against the Texas Rangers.

There are rabid Red Sox fans, and then there’s my buddy Deb.

Her license plate is BoSox2, and her new cat is named Caroline after the Sox’s 8th inning anthem “Sweet Caroline.” (Her beloved first cat Fenway died last year.)

She’s clad in Red Sox gear when we meet in a commuter lot outside New Haven, CT., for the 2 1/2-hour trek to Fenway Park. It’s my first trip of the season, but Deb’s already been to three games and it’s only mid-June.

From left: Deb, me, Cindy and Abigail.
Yea, that’s the Sox dugout right next to our seats.

She scored this ticket as part of a girls’ night out orchestrated by yours truly. I got the idea for the outing last winter after my friend Cindy’s mother died. During his eulogy, Cindy’s husband Ted mentioned that his mother-in-law Barbara was a diehard Red Sox fan. I thought it might be fun to take Cindy to a game in honor of “Mother Wolfe,” who died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

I then invited Deb, whose love of the Sox is legendary. Deb, Cindy and I all got our start in journalism at Citizen Publications, a now-defunct chain of small dailies and weeklies gobbled up by publishing conglomerates in 1995.

Though I never actually worked with Deb during my Citizen days, I met her several years ago at a Citizen reunion organized by Cindy at an Italian restaurant. The Citizen was that kind of place. It got into your soul and grabbed a permanent place, perhaps because we were there for a common goal that had nothing to do with money.

We were all there because we wanted to be journalists. And though it wasn’t exactly the big leagues – as other reporters and readers often reminded us – we didn’t care. We were all doing what we loved, even if it meant qualifying for free blocks of federally-funded cheese and moonlighting at the Burlington Coat Factory to pay the bills.

In its own way, the Citizen was family, or at least as close to it as a workplace can be. Cindy strolled through the old building, which is now a fish distribution center, with a few former colleagues before our last reunion and said it was rundown and depressing. I guess some things are best preserved to memory.

***

Deb is proof that fandom can be passed down through the generations. Her mother, who’s in her early ’80s, was a diehard Red Sox fan long before it was fashionable for women to follow sports. Living in Maine, the Sox seemed a reasonable target for her mom’s unwavering love and devotion.

As we made our way to our seats next to the Sox dugout, Deb’s excitement became palpable and she quickened her step. She told me she’s been a Red Sox fan since she was 10, when she first visited Fenway with her family.

It was 1967 – the year the Red Sox won the American League pennant, in what was later dubbed The Impossible Dream. Deb didn’t watch the TV the night the Sox won. Her eyes were fixed on her mother. She couldn’t believe how excited she was that the Sox finally won.

The ensuing 50 years have only deepened Deb’s love of the team, and I was curious to attend a game with her. Would she be dancing in the aisles like other super fans and trying to get on the Jumbotron? I doubted it given her laid back personality, but you never know. People do crazy things at sporting events.

Deb’s eyes widened as we approached our seats next to the dugout. Only a low concrete wall and safety netting separated her from her beloved Sox, and she could shout out to players if she was so inclined. But she has too much class and decorum for that. Besides, she didn’t want to do anything to distract the Sox from the game against the Texas Rangers.

As we settled into our seats, a security officer approached us.

“Is this the first time you’ve been in this section?,” he asked. “Because I’m going to have to ask you ladies to control yourselves. There will be no jumping over the wall to try to get at the players tonight.”

Hmmm, very funny. Cindy, who’s president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women, wasn’t amused.

“I think that was a little sexist,” she whispered. “I mean, he’d never say that kind of thing to men.”

Deb kept mostly to herself during the game, keeping her chatting to a minimum to focus on the field. She occasionally turned to me to comment on a player’s change of batting music or lousy batting average, but there’s no doubt where her focus is when she’s in the house.

On average, she attends about 10 Sox games a year, mostly at Fenway Park. This year has been particularly disappointing – the Sox have lost all four games she’s attended. But Deb didn’t boo or heckle players like some fans when the Sox lost. Instead, she stood and clapped.

Deb is proof that being a Red Sox fan is about the long haul and big picture. She’s not about to give up on the season or team because of a few losses. In fact, she’s already counting the days to her next scheduled game Aug. 3rd at Yankees Stadium.

It’s wonderful to be passionate about a baseball team, and I envy Deb’s devotion to the Sox. I’ve never felt that way about any team. I’m a sometime fan who drops in when it’s convenient or a ticket drops into my lap, but I don’t have the drive or interest in following a team from opening day to October.

I wish I did, but I don’t. But I think I understand Deb’s love of the Sox a little better after sitting next to her for three hours. Her mom loves the team, and passed that passion onto her daughter. This isn’t so much about baseball or the Sox as it is about a little girl loving her mother, and wanting to grow up to be just like her.

Deb has done her mother proud, which is the most any of us can hope for as parents.

Ethan’s Law

Ethan Song
(Gunmemorial.org photo)

It’s nearly 5 a.m., and I’m creeping around my house because we’ve got overnight guests.

Someone is stretched out on my favorite couch, and I’m taking pains to make coffee and feed the dog as quietly as possible. I’m relieved when I see the living room couch is free, meaning I have a place to write.

It’s still dark outside, and I don’t want to turn on the lights. I can hear crickets, and the occasional hoot of an owl. This is my favorite time to write because my mind is rested and fresh, not bolloxed up by the stuff of the day.

And I need a rested mind to approach this subject. It’s about gun safety and parents losing their son at age 15 because of an unlocked gun. It’s about a mom and dad channeling their grief into action, trying to make something good and lasting out of a senseless tragedy.

Ethan Song died in January, 2018, after he got ahold of an unlocked gun at a friend’s house and accidentally shot himself. The gun and ammunition were stored in a plastic container in a closet in his friend’s house near the public beach in Guilford, CT.

I still remember the day it happened. The schools let out early for a monthly teacher’s conference on the last Wednesday of the month. I wondered if things might have been different if the kids had a full school day.

The news of Ethan’s death shattered our tight-knit community. Two days after he died, hundreds of residents attended a candlelight vigil on the Green where his father Mike and friends shared stories of him. It was freezing that February night, but the sky was clear and full of stars. At the end of the vigil, Mike asked us to look to the sky and shout “Ethan, We Love You” on the count of three.

I just got chills recounting that part. Mike showed so much grace, leading us in a cheer just 48 hours after his son’s death. I admired his strength and composure. I know I’d be a zombie in the same situation.

Five months after Ethan’s death, the Songs organized a 5K road race to raise money for their organization promoting gun safety. This time, Mike stood atop a fire department ladder truck and looked out on the crowd, asking us to look skyward and shout, “Ethan, We Love You.”

Chills again, all through my body recalling it. Mike has such faith that Ethan is in heaven looking down on us. And when you are screaming the words and look at what the Songs have accomplished since losing Ethan, you believe it too.

But first, back to the kids on my couch. They’re here because they partied while watching Game 4 of the Boston Bruins vs. the St. Louis Blues. They know the dangers of drunk driving, so they stayed overnight on couches and floors.

I’m happy they’re here because they’re safe and will return to their families later today. It’s largely through the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving – and parents who lost their own children to DWI crashes – that today’s kids know not to drink and drive.

It took years to change public opinion and attitudes about drunk driving, but MADD did it through victim impact statements at trials, advocating tougher DWI laws and penalties, speeches at schools and education, including DWI crash simulations at high schools.

And though it seems like public opinion is never going to change on guns, the shift in attitudes about DWI gives me hope about the gun issue. I hope that one day gun advocates understand that most people don’t want to take away their guns: we just want to keep them out of the hands of children and people who are mentally unfit to prevent senseless tragedies.

Much as the families of DWI victims rallied for tougher laws to spare others the pain they went through, the Songs have stepped to the forefront of the gun safety movement. Just 18 months after Ethan’s death, Gov. Ned Lamont this week signed “Ethan’s Law,” which requires the safe storage of guns, whether loaded or unloaded.

I have a feeling that everyone is eventually going to know the Songs’ name. They want to make “Ethan’s Law” a national law, and judging by recent headlines, it’s needed. Guns are still getting into the hands of kids with fatal results. Just last week, an 11-year-old was charged with negligent homicide in the fatal shooting death of his 9-year-old brother in Louisiana.

Ethan’s Law will make it safer for every child in Connecticut to be in homes where there are firearms. Under the law, no child will be able to get ahold a gun on a play date.

As Ethan’s mother Kristin recently pointed out on the town’s Facebook page “Simply Guilford”, you don’t always know if someone is a gun owner when you send your child to a friend’s house. Your child is really only as safe as a gun owner’s storage of his firearms.

Years ago, I sent my son to an in-home day care center. The day-care owner had NRA stickers on her car, which made me uncomfortable. I suspected that she had guns in the house, but I never asked her about it. I was too shy, figuring it wasn’t any of my business.

But it was my business. My child was in her house, and so were a lot of other kids. Parents have a right to know and be assured that their children are safe when they go to a friend’s house or day-care facility. I wouldn’t send my child to a known predator or drug dealer’s house, so why would I send him to a home with an unlocked gun?

I eventually pulled my son out of that day-care because he came home with a bite on his hand, and the day-care owner said she had no idea how it happened. “Maybe he bit himself,” she offered. Was she kidding? It looked like he’d been bitten hard by another kid. Teeth marks were still on his hand when I drove him back to the house to ask her what happened.

I never went back. It bothered me that she had no idea how my child was hurt. It was clear that she wasn’t watching him, or was having other people watch the kids while she went out. She was careless, and I didn’t want my son around her. I didn’t trust her.

In addition to gun safety, Ethan’s death has underscored the importance of knowing where you’re sending your child. We all take steps to child-proof our homes when our kids are little, yet the same diligence is needed when they are teens.

No parent has ever asked me if I have guns in my house, yet it’s a valid question. And maybe Ethan’s Law will get the conversation rolling and give parents the courage to ask the tough questions.