By Tanya Jarvik.
The night my father orders my thirteen-year-old son to say the blessing on the food, Everest initially tries to opt out: “No, Grandpa,” he says, “I’d rather not.”
“You sat in my chair, which means you have to say the blessing,” my father insists.
Everest looks around the table, looking for a possible savior among us: his sister, two-year-old Ravenna, who is picking up her peas one at a time and popping them into her mouth; his parents, neither of whom seems disposed to intervene; his grandparents, who have already folded their arms. “Okay, but you’re not gonna like it,” he mutters, clasping his hands in front of his chest.
“O Great Spaghetti Monster,” he begins, all of a sudden projecting like he’s auditioning for Hamlet, and immediately I’m thinking, oh fuck, the family dinner’s shot to hell, because this is not the way it’s supposed to go. Believe me, I know how to say a proper Mormon blessing on the food, having said one – let’s see, once every four or five dinners from age three to eighteen, so say three years, times three sixty-five, which comes to seven hundred, plus…so yeah, like eleven hundred times. Give or take. Dear Heavenly Father, thank thee for this food. Please bless it, that it will nourish and strengthen us. Thank thee for…some other stuff, such as ‘the loving hands that prepared this meal’, and please grant us…some other stuff it’s okay to want, which is to say, nothing excessive, nothing controversial, nothing inappropriate, nothing personal, namejeechristamen.
That’s how it’s supposed to go. That’s the formula for a blessing that would meet my parents’ approval. But I didn’t teach my son how to pray properly – and I didn’t teach him how to fake whatever keeping the peace might require him to fake. Why? Probably because I’m a bad daughter and a bad mother. If you want proof, it’s right here in the smartass pudding: I seem to be raising the kind of kid who would sooner compose an impromptu ode to the Flying Spaghetti Monster than make even a pro forma bow to the god his grandparents worship. All through Everest’s bizarre address to Heavenly Pasta, I’m riffling through his phrases, listening for an echo from my childhood, but there’s nothing there I recognize, nothing my parents would find even vaguely prayer-like and therefore nominally acceptable. Everest says something about delicious gobs of cheese, something about sauce simmering in the sky, and something about oodles of noodle-y appendages. Then, abruptly, he stops talking.
Across the table from me, my frozen father waits for Amen, the magic word that will break the spell. Without the time-honored cue, my family’s equivalent of Bon Appetit, even I am unsure about what comes next, although it does seem like someone ought to do something. Everest picks up his fork. Apparently, his blessing is over. Almost in one motion, my father rises from his chair, throws down his napkin in disgust, and leaves the room. Then the side door slams, letting us know he’s out of the house.
“Please pass the salad,” says my mother. She’s put on her “pleasant” voice, the one she unpacks whenever she’s deeply embarrassed, which is oftener than you’d think. That voice, infused with mothball graciousness, has always been my mother’s way of preserving appearances. Some people might find it soothing, but I have developed an aversion to it over the years.
When I was maybe six or seven, my parents hosted a dinner party for some of my father’s fellow Air Force officers and their wives. My little sister and I were sent to bed early. After the guests had arrived and it sounded as though everyone had settled down to eat, I slipped out from under my covers and crept barefoot down the long cold hallway to our dining room, making sure I kept close to the wall so I wouldn’t be seen. I didn’t dare peek in on the party, but as I sat by the door, safely out of sight, my pink flannel nightie tucked under my toes, I tried to picture the glamorous scene. Earlier that day, I’d watched my mother turn two tables into one long one, overlapping three white tablecloths and concealing the hems where they joined with flowers and silver candlesticks. I’d watched her chopping and stirring and ironing and running a dust rag over the tops of our radiators one more time, just to be sure. When I’d asked her why I couldn’t be at the special dinner, why it was only for grown-ups, she’d replied that it ought to be okay for her to have an adult conversation for once. “What are adult conversations about?” I wanted to know. “Nothing that would interest you,” she said.
I sat in the dark hallway for what seemed like a long time, eavesdropping. I had imagined that grown-ups, out of the earshot of children, might let slip some fascinating details about the things mommies and daddies did with each other when their kids were asleep, but all I heard was the unmistakable sound of people papering over their discomfort with polite inanities. My mother had been right. Left to their own devices, grown-ups were boring. I went back to bed.
The next day, my mother told us she had a compliment to pass on: apparently, the guests had been amazed by how obedient we were, because their kids wouldn’t have stayed in bed the way we had. Their children would have been up a zillion times, disturbing everyone with incessant requests for drinks of water and so on. “I felt very proud of you,” my mother said, and I got this squirmy fakey feeling smack in the middle of my chest, because she was proud of me for being some way I wasn’t – or, more accurately, for not being some way I actually was. The praise didn’t belong to me, her actual child; it belonged to someone she wanted me to be, someone who didn’t exist.
Not long after that dinner party, the only one I can remember my parents ever hosting, my father checked himself into a mental hospital for the first time. He was in and out of treatment for three years before he was finally diagnosed as bipolar and stabilized on lithium. During that time, our family folded inward. We kept our shame to ourselves.
Even after my father got well again, my parents did not entertain outsiders in our home. On the rare occasions when we had dinner guests, they were either missionaries or relatives. Some of our relatives, when they came to visit us, brought us banana cream pies or bags of BBQ-flavored potato chips. They brought us their hand-me-down clothes and costume jewelry and extra frisbees, and sometimes their kids brought playing cards, which we’d use to play games of strip Uno down in the basement, because face cards were contraband and none of us knew how to play poker anyway. When Edna came, though, she only ever brought her widowed brother David – who, to his credit, once brought me a ’50’s-style dress of mustard-colored silk that had belonged to his wife. It hung a bit loose on me, but I wore it often, with a brooch in the shape of a pineapple pinned at the neckline, right beneath my throat.
Edna was technically my step-great grandma. Now that she was a widow, without the burden of caring for my great-grandpa, an old man I barely remembered, Edna had been called to serve a genealogical mission for the Mormon church, which meant two things: one, she came to our house for dinner just about every Sunday for an entire year, and two, the topic of conversation during these visits was always who was related to whom, and how.
I can picture the scene so clearly. The extra leaf has been added to the teak table, the practical beige curtains have been drawn against the last of the winter daylight, and we’re eating something made according to the directions on one of those yellowed recipe cards my mother keeps in a green metal box, some dish with a name like Chinese Hekka or Ozark Pudding or Impossible Pie. Mom’s at one end of the table, with her glass of lukewarm water, and Dad’s at the other. My sister and brother and I are lined up along one side, nearest the kitchen, and Edna and David are sitting next to each other across from us, with their backs to the sliding glass door that opens onto our cement patio. We’re listening politely while David, whose feet don’t touch the floor and whose stubby little fingers remind me of Vienna sausages, the kind that come out of a little glass jar, drones on and on about William of Orange or Normandy or Stratford-on-Avon or whatever. Edna chimes in every now and again to personalize his abstract historical narrative with a tidbit about who begat whom and thus became – surprise! – one of our ancestors.
There I sit, a twelve-year-old girl in a dead woman’s dress, holding my knife in my right hand and my fork in my left, back straight, elbows off the table, asking maybe the occasional relevant question just to show I’ve been paying attention, when what I’m really dying to know is what my great-grandpa could have seen in Edna, or what made David’s wife decide to marry him, because those two are the absolute antithesis of sexy, and could never have been otherwise.
Edna, with her tiny blackcurrent eyes, her tightly curled white hair, and her woolly bleating laugh, reminds me of nothing so much as a sheep. David, with his bizarrely shortened calves and forearms and those missing joints in his fat fingers (and, presumably, toes), looks part man and part cartoon. How could anyone have taken either of them seriously as mates? Was my great-grandpa a breast man, perhaps? (His first wife, my real great-grandma, is known to have passed her big-boob genes on to her daughters, her granddaughters – and, it is now beginning to become obvious, to me, her great-granddaughter. I sneak a look at Edna’s capacious bosom. Yep, I see a pattern there.) And what about David’s wife? Had she been too ugly to find anyone with the usual number of finger joints? Or had she been pretty – too pretty, perhaps, the kind of girl who’d learned to fear a big man with big hands, a man capable of throwing her down on the nearest horizontal surface and having his way with her?
Of course, I knew better than to say any of this aloud. I was still a good girl, at least on the outside. I was not then what I am now.
I’m not exactly sure how I became the family disgrace. I guess, if you have a precocious child, she might be unusually curious. She might not stop at eavesdropping at the dining room door. She might read the wrong books and wonder about the wrong things. She might fall in love with the wrong person. She might drop out of the religious university you enrolled her in, moving all her belongings to the tiny second-floor apartment she will share with her boyfriend, thus forcing you to admit to all your relatives that yes, your eldest daughter is living in sin. And although you might think things are improving after she gets married and has her first baby and lands a fellowship that pays her way through graduate school, you would be wrong, because your daughter and her iconoclast husband never put much stock in those sacred vows they made to please you. It won’t be long before she’s at a sushi restaurant with her lover, feeling him up under the table. A few years later, she’ll be passing around plates of tres leches cake in honor of her first ménage à trois. Next thing you know, she’ll be cooking holiday dinners not only for her husband, her son, and her daughter, but also for her lover, her husband’s lover, her husband’s lover’s husband and kids, and a motley assortment of friends and neighbors, including the gay couple from down the street. But wait, it gets worse, because eventually your good little girl is going end up turning into me – and here I am, talking with my mouth full of sushi and cake and turkey and god knows what else. You see?
A year after my son’s controversial blessing on the food, we were at another family gathering, dinner forks in hand, when my three-year-old daughter stopped us: “We need to say a blessing!”
“Oh, come on!” groaned Everest, “Will someone please explain to her that there is no God?”
“Okay, Ravenna,” I said, choosing to humor my younger child rather than my older one. I laced my fingers together, and then, with mock gravitas, said, “Thank you for this food. It looks yummy.”
“No, no,” she said, “That’s not how it really goes!”
“How does it really go?” I asked.
“First we hafta hold hands,” said Ravenna. So we all held hands, ten of us around the table: Tyler’s mother, Tyler’s sister and her family, and the four of us.
“Now what?” I wanted to know.
“Now you say Dear Heavenly Father and Dear Spaghetti Monster. And at the end, you say Amen.”
Ever since the night of that dinner, when, with good grace and not a little merriment, I did my best to cobble together something that would meet my daughter’s approval, I have been thinking about another blessing on the food, one that would meet my own approval – not because I have standards that must be met, but simply because it would feel right to me to say it.
I start with myself, because, for better or worse, this is where I must always begin before I can address You. I bring to this table not just my elbows, my knees, and the flower of my sex – too bad I don’t have Judy Chicago’s Georgia O’Keefe plate to properly commemorate it! – but also my spirit, whatever that might be. If you look into my mouth, perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse: see here, underneath my tongue, two feathers, one on each side. They’re a little like peacock feathers, don’t you think? But softer, more earth-toned, with an amethyst eye at each tip. The beginning of wings! Who knew?
Just so you know, when I include you, I mean you, each of you, all of you, people in here and people out there, people I know and love, and people I might not care to meet, but I mean even more than that, because I also mean you: you worms, you frogs, you butterflies. Yeah, I borrowed that last bit from a children’s book, but that’s okay here, that’s as fine a way as any to convey my smallness in the presence of greatness, my single I in the eternal vastness of multiple You.
There is no need to bless the food, because it has already been blessed by earth and sky, and nothing can unsanctify it. Even after months in the freezer section of the supermarket, that kind of blessing is still good. But I have always liked the line, “For what we are about to eat, Lord, make us truly grateful.” I probably heard it in a movie; it’s not a line we ever used when I was growing up. Let’s shrug off the yoke of compulsion, though, shall we? And let’s get a bit more specific. For these tender cubes of potato, let us be truly grateful. For this cinnamon, this cumin, this cardamom, let us be truly grateful. For this saffron, which once dusted the feet of a shiny black ant crawling out of a crocus, let us be truly grateful. Not just for these ingredients, but also for the history of this dish, let us be truly grateful. For spice traders in their trim ships, all those years ago, yes, but also for the coyote bringing his brown brothers and sisters across the border, from desert to fertile farmland, where they will take on the thankless task of tending to our fruits and vegetables, let us be truly grateful. Truly grateful: sometimes I wonder what it means, in a world so full of injustice, but let us be true nonetheless, and let us be grateful, above all, for this miracle of transubstantiation that takes place in every country, billions of times every day: see this bread become our bodies; see this wine become our blood.
My impulse is to end this prayer in the name of everyone, or no one, but if I were to choose one name, it would have to be my own, with best wishes and all my love.
And – oh, yes – Amen.
Tanya Jarvik has kept a journal since she was seven years old. Her poetry has appeared in VoiceCatcher, The Open Face Sandwich, and elsewhere. She also moonlights as an advice columnist for the alt-relationship crowd.