I can’t remember when our family started dressing for dinner, but we did. I remember my parents allowing my sister and I to sit under the old round table my mother and father would eat dinner on, the table dragged onto the carpet in the family room beyond the kitchen. My father left for work every day, Monday to Friday, at 7.30 am, for forty years. If you woke early enough to share the breakfast bar with him you ate in silence, lest you interrupt his ‘newspaper’ time.
My mother would sit on a small stool on the other side of the bench, inside the confines of the kitchen, ready to spring into action if anyone needed anything or ran out of something. She was like a coiled cobra, her venom - the care of a mother trying to pre-empt needs.
When my father came home he’d be ushered to a cooked meal waiting on the table. In those early years my sister and I were partners in crime and we’d thrill at being allowed to see our father’s lower legs and feet from under that table a few nights each week. We couldn't move or talk, or in any way remind him we were there, but we were there and that was enough.
The temptation to laugh was overwhelming and when we did we’d finally get to talk to our father, or he’d talk to us.
“Right, you’ve been told before. Go to bed. Now.” It was like his very own, well rehearsed bedtime story. We could camp under that table as long as we were forgotten. This was parenting seventies style and it was probably where I fell in love with television and adopted it as my primary carer.
The best night of the week was the night M*A*S*H appeared on screen. My sister and I would stay silent as we listened to our parents laugh at things that went over our heads. My little brother wasn’t under the table at this stage, so I guess it was the early seventies, maybe as late as 1975.
I first remember my brother as part of the family dinner ritual when he was just old enough to start using the toilet on his own, but before he was able to wipe. This meant while we sat at the table we'd hear him call out, “Mum, I’m ready,” only to be met by my sympathetic father hollering back, “Drop in!” How we laughed as my father inflicted his youngest child with lifelong complexes and insecurities. Years later he would amplify my brother’s trust issues by throwing him into a swimming pool in an effort to teach him to swim. The rest of the family watched in horror as he bobbed like an apple in a washing machine, his arms agitating suds, but my father assured us, “He’ll work it out.” He did, but I also remember my brother never went near water, or my father, without a flotation device strapped to him for years after.
When my brother was old enough to join us at the dinner table he would have already eaten and been readied for bed. I remember playing the role of my father’s magic assistant during these before bedtime interludes. I would take a passed item from dad and whisk it up to my brother’s bedroom where, on my return my father would set my brother away to be amazed at his magical telekinesis. How long my brother’s amazement remained real is a disputed point, because he's always been smart enough to work out beneficial angles and he quickly realised his bedtime could be delayed by showing stupified wonder and admiration at the grand master’s tricks.
As the family grew, the old round table down the far end of the house became too small and somewhere along the time line of my family's life, probably during one of my grandparent’s bi-annual trips from Canada, when they’d come and be part of our family for six weeks, we moved to one of the inner rooms - out of bounds to children at all other times - the dining room.
My grandparents’ visits will always be linked to projects in the garden shed. Every time Grandpa arrived he’d set about building a contraption designed to kill or maim as many of the neighbours' children as possible. The only relationship I can remember to any of these backyard death traps was an inverse one between speed and safety. The most famous was the five person billy cart.
“Now remember,” Grandpa would remind us, “All five of you need to be on it, feet up and legs interlocked through the arms of the person in front, and yes, this hill does need to be this steep.”
My grandfather was great fun, because he wasn't restricted by rules or any sense of political correctness. He was one of the few people I felt understood me. He and I would discuss things and quite often I’d say something he’d actually consider seriously, sometimes what I said could even change his mind. This was unbelievable to me as a child. Discussions with my father never went like that - they always followed a tried and tested form. I would begin the discussion with a question that left me curious: “When you get older, do your memories fade, or do they always remain clear and vivid?” My father would look at me with a mixture of curiosity and pity and answer: “Stop being an idiot.” That had become what I knew as a meaningful exchange.
With my grandfather I was treated like an adult long before I was an adult.
“Don’t ever speak to your mother like that again. Especially not around me,” he barked at me once. I’d never seen my grandfather angry, but what I’d said to my mother, or to be more accurate, the tone I’d used had brought him to a high pitched boil.
“She told me to set the table. If she wants me to set the table she should ask, not tell.” My grandfather stood looking at me, his red face softening. He said nothing and then walked away leaving me alone and confused. I was disorientated, fearing I was about to be dropped into a metaphoric swimming pool. A few moments later my mother appeared.
“Would you like to set the table for me?” This was some kind of miracle. It was also the exact same time my grandfather began working on the five person death cart.
The migration of the family from the little round wobbly table at the back of the house, to the grand dining table in the forbidden zone was a big deal, but it was never marked by any formal moment of change, instead it became the norm after our grandparents left to return home one year and we simply didn't move back to the outer room. We kept gathering for dinner in the dining room for the next decade and a half.
The only genuine memory of the beginning of this family ritual was from my father trying to instigate weekly family meetings. To this day we have no idea what he hoped to achieve or why he thought it a good idea, but he did. We had a weekly printed agenda and speakers had to be formally recognised by the chair or remain silent. New suggestions had to be proposed and seconded before they’d be considered for a vote and anything voiced had to be thought through and well presented or the permanent chair of the meeting would rule you out of order. Rolling your eyes at the chair could get you expelled from the room.
I remember these meetings - I remember more than one. I can’t say for sure just how many there were. I know there were enough to firmly establish, in my mind, that my father was mad. Often he wouldn’t recognise any of us, supposedly because of a lack of protocol, but I always suspected he'd just had a bad day. He was an eye surgeon and one of his more colourful responses to the question of, "How was your day?" was, "Jelly on the floor." That was it, nothing more. It meant an operation hadn't gone well and someone now needed a guide dog - it also meant shut-up and eat and possibly - "Pass the gravy."
“I propose we do away with family meetings and just talk to each other.” I don’t know who or how this was actually voiced, but I know it was, because I distinctly recall my father growing frustrated at the lack of protocols the family were observing - we had orchestrated a coup, all his beloved procedural rules were being ignored and he wasn't happy.
He gave up on the procedural rules once we agreed to a set of general rules to eat dinner by.
- Dinner would be at seven every night - no excuses.
- No t-shirts or shirts with writing or logos visible.
- No shorts and only shoes with socks.
- Hair done, clothes clean.
- Table manners were to be observed at all times.
- No leaving until the entire meal and desert were eaten and you must ask to be excused at the end of the meal.
- No friends or phone interruptions without prior approval.
The last rule was fine by me, this insanity was something I tried to hide from everyone. I knew we were well off, not rich, but certainly not poor either. We had old money class without the money. My grandmother had been cast out of a family that could trace its heritage back to large land holders in South Australia in the earliest years of Australia. She grew up with maids and butlers and private schools. Having married a man not approved of she was abandoned by her family, but she never abandoned her snobbery and she’d made sure to pass it down to her son who had taken it on so well he didn’t know he was a snob. He once gave me this advice when I needed to hear he still believed in me, “You don’t have to be very good, because you can always rely on enough people around you being worse.”
I kept our family dinners to myself for years and I laugh now at my father’s most famous threat, “How about I take you out of Scotch College and send you to Kew High?” I fairly shook in my boots at the time, but now, as my nephew has happily endured Kew High, a public school in an elite area of Melbourne, I realise just how warped my childhood view of the world was; why my mother worried about visiting me in an upwardly mobile suburb in the 90's, certain leaving her car out on the street would see it gone. It suddenly all made so much sense.
Mine was a privileged upbringing, filled with our unique version of the sort of ridiculousness that hides behind every family’s front door. Dressing for dinner was something I was acutely embarrassed about at the time. On the very rare occasions friends came around as dinner was ending, to go with me to a film or concert, or just to study, I would always tell them they’d stumbled onto a special family celebration that explained the fine dining and the formal setting as an aberration, but it was an everyday occurrence in our house. We’d sit and talk about our day, we’d share stories and make each other laugh and we’d find out what we loved and hated about each other - about what made each of us unique.
It’s a strange thing to remember my shame that any of it may have been found out by my friends; the insecurities of youth. I was unable to judge the good from bad because I had no life experience, no discernible measure to judge things against. Today, when I look back, I’d give almost anything to be back at that table enjoying one more meal.