by J. Scott Jordan, Ph.D.
“God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food, Amen.”
We all looked up, and supper began. Everyone took a helping from the dish of food in front of them and then passed the dish to the right. While we were passing the food, Mom was running back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room with freshly toasted pieces of bread. We were having chipped beef with peas and gravy on toast, one of my favorites, and Mom always made sure the toast was hot. Dad sat at the end of the table, you know, the end that always had the seat with arms. I never could figure out why the seat at the other end of the table didn’t have any arms. The chairs at either end of the dining- room table I now own both have arms. But that table didn’t. Anyway, I always sat to dad’s left. I sat there because I tended to eat my food too slowly. I would end up sitting at the table picking over my plate long after everyone else had already finished. Sitting next to dad was supposed to motivate me to eat faster. It did. With five kids in the house, you might think that dinner would be somewhat chaotic. Not so in our house. When we finished saying our grace, we didn’t dive into the food like the kids on the Brady Bunch. I’m not saying we weren’t lively. It’s just that we were pretty-well behaved. Also, I know we talked a lot during dinner. For the life of me I cannot remember the content of one single conversation, but I know that we talked a lot because when I was in fifth grade, our family was going to a counselor, and one of the strategies she suggested we use to help us get along better was to allow everybody 5 minutes of uninterrupted talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. I think we actually did this for about three days. I’m pretty sure everyone was glad to see that rule go down the tubes, even my parents. I don’t remember whether it was officially announced that we were to do away with the rule, or whether we all just started talking one night and didn’t get told to shut up. I think it was the latter. None of us complained. We just kept talking.
After dinner we all had our assigned duties; clear and clean the table, or wash and dry the dishes. There were four of us at the time who were old enough to do these tasks, so we were broken-down into pairs. One pair cleared the table and the other did the dishes. I hated both tasks, but hated clearing the table least. One thing I really hated about clearing the table was cleaning the table cloth. It was light green and was made out of a sort of plastic vinyl. A very fine pattern of leaves and flowers had been embossed into the plastic vinyl, making it both very attractive and very difficult to keep clean. I would scrub and scrub at that thing, trying to get rid of the dirt that would otherwise become stains, while also trying to maintain a sense of gentleness so as not to rip the fabric. Mom on the other hand, always new exactly how to get rid of the dirt and was very adept at finding dirt my 13-year-old eyes could not yet detect. Somehow I learned.
I’m pretty sure that I was paired with each of my siblings at some point, but the person I actually remember being paired with was my oldest sister. She was one and a half years younger than me. What I remember was the way we used to laugh. There wasn’t anything funny. We just laughed. Eventually we would break-down into horrible fits of giggling that neither one of us could control. No one really minded unless we started taking too long to do the dishes. However, no matter how stern the warning, we always seemed to keep laughing. Every once in a while, my youngest sister, who was 6 years younger than me, would stay in the kitchen and laugh with us. I remember that my youngest sister and I would try to insult one another while my oldest sister served as a sort of referee. Believe it or not, both of us really believed that my oldest sister could tell which insult was the best. We would keep a tally, but I don’t remember ever announcing a winner. I can’t remember when those bouts of laughing ended.
Anyway, this particular dinner took place during a hot evening in June of 1976. It was the year of the bi-centennial. The United States would celebrate its 200th birthday. As a 13 year old my appreciation of this event was wrapped in the sort of experiences a 13-year old is capable of having. I remember picking out a shirt at Kmart while shopping with Mom. It was a white, cotton, short-sleeve shirt with a really neat picture of an eagle and a flag ironed on the back. I don’t know why Mom bought it, but I really liked it and wore it a lot. However, tonight I was wearing a different shirt. Specifically, it was a white, cotton, long-sleeve shirt that had quilted shoulder pads. The pieces of fabric that made-up the shoulder pads all contained very robust star-like patterns that were the color of leaves in Autumn. Also, the buttons were actually snaps. I absolutely loved this shirt. As a matter of fact, I loved it more than my new shirt with the neat flag and eagle iron-on. I think I liked the shirt so much because it looked so neat! Also, it had been given to me by my older brother. This made all the difference in the world, for I was really impressed by the fact that he had recently gotten a part-time job, made some of his own money, and actually spent some of it on me! I thought my older brother was the coolest! I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t doing something exciting. What was weird about him was that he always seemed to do what he wanted, even if he knew he would get into trouble. For example, Dad owned a Suzuki 80; a sort of cross between a motorcycle and mini-bike. When my parents would go out for dinner or something, my brother would start-up the motorcycle and ride it back and forth in our front yard. It was very cool. However, I always experienced a sense of dread when he did this because one of the neighbors would always tell my parents. When they found out there would be a lot of yelling and my brother would get into trouble. It didn’t matter. The next time they left, he was on the bike again. I always wondered what it was that allowed him to act that way.
Anyway, my oldest sister and I were trying to finish the dishes. I didn’t know where my brother was. I wasn’t even thinking about him. I was too busy laughing. We were singing our version of “Mr. Postman”.
“Stop”, we sang together.
“Oh yes, wait a minute Mr. Postman”, she sang alone. “Wait”, again together.
“Wai-ai-ai-ait Mr. Postman”, she alone.
From there we would take the song as far as we could. She would sing the melody while I tried to sing a bass part. We never sang it through to the end; we would start laughing too soon. “Let’s get those dishes finished in their”, Dad called from the backyard. The kitchen window was on the side of the house, and Mom and Dad used to sit in lawn chairs under a tree that was close to the window. They would sit there and talk, about what, I’m not sure. I know they must have talked about us though, because every once in a while we would get called out there. You could tell by the way you were called whether or not you were in trouble. We did not look forward to being called. I remember one time being called out there because I had lied about something. As I stood there in front of my parents, I was dead nervous. I was very bad at lying, and I knew another lie would just make things worse. When you stood in front of my parents as they sat in their lawn chairs underneath that tree by the kitchen window, the setting sun would filter through the leaves of the tree and make you feel as though you were on stage. My parents didn’t take well to being lied to. “So why did you lie to your Mother?” Dad would ask. “I…I…I’m not…I don’t…” The words came from nowhere and did not come easily.
“I see,” Dad would say. My butt didn’t take well to my parents not taking well to being lied to. Needless to say my sister and I tried to stop laughing. This just made us laugh harder. Trying to hold back our laughter made us laugh so hard we started to laugh out of our noses. Tears streamed down our cheeks as the breath we were trying to hold in somehow escaped and made the most God awful noises. Eventually, however, the desire not to be called out into the yard won over and we worked at finishing the dishes. I usually dried them. Since neither one of us liked really hot water, the dishes seemed to take forever to dry. Eventually it felt like you were simply spreading cold water over the plate. It would be a few years before I was willing to tolerate the sting of hot water in order to dry the dishes faster.
As we were finishing up, putting the last of the dishes where they belonged, I heard my youngest sister playing out in the yard. The sound pushed me to finish a little faster. We had taken longer than usual to finish the dishes and the sun was beginning to set. I would have to move pretty quickly if I wanted to do any serious playing outside before dark. Every once in a while we would get to stay out after dark. When we did, all of the kids from the neighborhood would get together and play Bloody Murder. We would sit on a porch and count to twenty while one person ran off to hide. Then we would all go off in the dark in search of the one hiding person. My brothers and the rest of the older kids were the ones who usually hid. The rest of us were too scared to go off in the dark and hide by ourselves. It seemed as though the older the hider, the longer he would remain hidden. Even if one of us smaller kids walked by his hiding space, he would just stay there, letting the tension mount. Finally, after we all started to get nervous and frustrated, one of us would walk by a place we thought was safe because we had checked it out earlier, and the hider would jump out at us, yelling at the top of his lungs. After we stopped screaming from the shock we would scream, “Bloody Murder!” This was the signal that the hider had been found and was now trying to “tag” as many people as possible before they made it back to the porch. Once we had all returned from the darkness and were standing in the porch light, we would exchange excited, giggly stories about where we had been when we had heard the call, “Bloody Murder!”
“Who found him?” asked one child excitedly. “I did!” two or three kids would say simultaneously.
“Yes I did!”
“No you didn’t you big fathead liar!”
“All right, all right,” one of the bigger kids would say. “Let’s keep it down.”
This was the part of the game I enjoyed most, sitting there under the porch light with my friends, still somewhat excited about the thrill of the last round, anxiously anticipating the onset of the next. Looking for the hider was just tension. Eventually the excitement of the last round would fizzle out and someone else would volunteer to hide.
Anticipating a round of “Bloody Murder” I went into the screen porch off of the kitchen and put on my shoes. From the screen porch I could see that my Dad was no longer in the yard. Again I heard my youngest sister. I looked up from tying my shoes and saw her in the yard playing with my Frisbee. She was just throwing it up in the air and catching it.
“Hey, what are you doing with my Frisbee?” I asked somewhat sternly. In a house of five kids you had to know what was yours if you wanted to be able to say you owned anything. She just kept playing. However, she did start humming and singing a bit louder as she did so. I knew the increase in volume was to let me know that she had heard me.
“Hey, did you ask me if you could play with that!” No answer. Increased volume. I stood up and looked out the window. Our eyes met and she knew she had me. She laughed a little louder and ran out of the backyard toward the front. I didn’t have my shoes on completely so I sat down and finished with haste. As soon as I was ready I burst through the back door, jumped down the steps, and took off after her. As I turned into the front yard I could see she was turning into a neighbor’s yard that was two houses away. I followed her like a fish hooked on a line. As I turned into the neighbor’s yard I could see that she was standing next to my father. She was talking to him. I didn’t slow down. I ran right up to the both of them at full speed. When I got there I stopped quickly and almost lost my balance. Breathing hard and trying to maintain my balance, I looked up at my father.
“What’s the problem boy?” asked Dad in a way that indicated he already knew what was happening. He was standing with his back to the setting sun, which was causing me to squint, so I moved over a bit so that I could see his face.
“She took my Frisbee.”
“And…?” he asked calmly.
“She didn’t ask me if she could take it.” “Oh, I see,” he said somewhat clinically. “And since it’s your Frisbee, you think you should be able to tell her to give it back to you?” “Yes sir.”
“I see,” again with the clinical tone. “You know, I was just standing here getting ready to play some volleyball with the neighbors when she ran up to me with your Frisbee, and you know what she said?”
“She said, Daddy, Scotty is going to be chasing me in a minute because I took his Frisbee.” I looked at my sister, but I was careful not to look angry. With Dad there I would have gotten into trouble. I just looked at her. She was grinning from ear to ear, knowing full well that I knew full well I had fallen for her trap; hook, line, and sinker. I guess I should have been really mad at her, and to some extent I probably was. But I knew I was right. Regardless of whether or not I had been framed by this cunning 7-year old, the Frisbee was mine, and anyone wanting to play with it was supposed to ask me first.
“What do you have to say Scotty?” he asked. The sun was continuing to set and I had to move again to see his face.
“It’s my Frisbee and if she wanted to play with it she should have asked me.”
“I see,” he said calmly. “So since you own it you should be able to tell other people what to do with it?”
“Fine,” again calmly. “Then since I own the shirt and pants you are wearing, give them to me.” I just looked at him. Then I looked at the ground. There was no way I was going to give him my shirt and pants. Absolutely no way. However, I also was not going to disobey my father. These two absolutes collided in my thirteen year old mind, the unyielding nature of both grinding at one another, both fighting for an expression the other would not allow. As the grinding increased I crossed my arms and started rubbing my shoulders. The quilted shoulder pads seemed to soothe the grinding. As I continued to run my fingers over and over the autumn-colored star-like designs that made up the quilted shoulder pads of the shirt my older brother had given me, the conflict resolved itself. I looked up at my father nervously.
“Dad,” I said in a voice that was an odd mix of intended calmness, nervousness, and defiance. “You can have the pants, but Jeff gave me the shirt and it’s mine.”
I stood and awaited the consequences of my disobedience. When nothing happened I slowly looked up at my father. He was just looking at me. It seemed as though we stood and looked at each other forever. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, in a voice that implied our conflict had attained a new status,
“Scott, let’s go home.”
I turned to walk with him. I do not remember walking home. Rather, all I remember is the both of us standing next to the fence by our backyard. Dad talked and talked and talked for what seemed like hours, while I stood there anxiously awaiting the punishment I knew was to come. For the life of me I cannot remember a word he said. As the sun descended behind him someone turned on the porch light and we stood there together in its light until well after dark, my father saying things I cannot remember. I do remember, however, that I wasn’t punished. At the time I didn’t think much of it. I simply felt as though I had been lucky. After Dad stopped talking he let me go play in the dark with the other kids, and that night I was in such a good mood, I decided to be the hider.
As I have grown older, I have come to realize why I wasn’t punished. And when Dad and I talk about the incident, he sheds a tear and we both have a good laugh. I remember asking once if he remembered anything he said as we stood in the porch-light.
“Not a word,” he responded, and we both roared with laughter. My sisters were with us at the time, and they started laughing as well. A few minutes later the laughter tapered off and Dad’s face became a bit more serious.
“What I remember about that night,” he said as a tear welled up in his eye, “was standing in the porch light with my son, who, for the first time in his life, had realized what he owns.” He rubbed his eye and then continued in a somewhat choked voice, “while I, for the first time in his life, realized what I did not.”