Our opalescent dinner plates with the worn, gold rims - the ones Mother bought for a dime apiece at Ben Franklin - clattered with an erratic palsy to tell us they were out of control. Skittish silverware on either side of each plate simultaneously shimmied with little hops, as if trying to escape the table. The corning-ware casserole dish full of mushy tuna mixed with noodles and peas nervously sweated steam. My red plastic glass with its flared lip designed for children involuntarily spilled milk all over my plate.
Despite these inanimate protestors, Pop continued to pound his fist across the kitchen table from me, yelling and thrashing his upper body as if to beat some sense into an unseen adversary. His furrowed brow contorted until its thick eyebrows threatened to jump across the table and strangle me. Inwardly I cried the cry of the innocent - the cry of the wounded - the cry of the trapped.
But my cry seemed to go unheard.
Pop waved his knife, covered with a huge slab of margarine, while cursing a colleague at work, a loan officer at the bank (a woman, no less, and obviously an intentional jerk), and somehow, even the very air we both breathed. None of it made the least bit of sense. I had done nothing to offend him, and yet obviously he chose to vent his fury on me as if I were a sponge and able to somehow soak it all up.
I stared at the bits of food swimming in the spilled milk on my plate while my heart did its daily jumping jacks, then pushed the soppy bits of cold tuna and noodles in circles with my fork. Who wanted to eat in an atmosphere like this?
Meanwhile, Mother placidly hunched in her chair and stroked a few scraggly, gray strands of hair on her forehead while shielding her face from Pop a pose characterizing inner retreat.
It was like this almost every night. After dinner Mother sighed over and over with deep, shuddering breaths that made me want to crawl into the fireplace. There at least I might hide. And if I were incinerated well, as smoke I might freely escape up, up the tall brick chimney and into the crisp night air.
It was a miracle Mother never hyperventilated during those sighing jags. She breathed so forcefully just like the bellows beside the fireplace that I thought her lungs should explode. All the while she pressed and wrung her hands, almost as if she were twisting a wet rag to get it dry, until her knuckles looked like white marbles. She paced around the house from room to room to room with an awkward, shuffling gait. It was nerve-wracking.
During her depressed charade Pop struck his own pose. He ceremoniously cleaned and lit his pipe, then muttered obscenities on the way to his throne - the manly, overstuffed corduroy chair in the corner of the living room flanked by the old lamp with the three-way switch. When all the bulbs were turned on it shed light onto that chair like an interrogation beam. He puffed furiously as he read the daily newspaper there, exploding periodically with seemingly venomous attacks on issues or the people involved in them. His eyes glared, aflame with something akin to helplessness - and maybe fear - as well as anger.
I had no choice but to shut down my heart, tiptoe delicately through each evening, and remain emotionally numb. I had to be a good girl, I told myself
had to hide my true feelings
had to accept responsibility for their actions. Things were too volatile for me to risk being real.
It was a big load to carry.
Half a century later I refuse to eat tuna casserole, and the smell of pipe tobacco sickens me. I dont subscribe to the daily newspaper and prefer dimly lit rooms. Nervous people make me nervous. Differences of opinion seem threatening, especially when expressed with intense emotion at the dinner table. Whenever my husband becomes angry I retreat - just like I did so many years ago - and hide my heart behind an agonizing wall of forced silence.
Come Lord Jesus - sit with me at that table with my angry, disillusioned parents as they dabbled at tuna casserole on cheap, dime-store plates. Come back to that place with me and set my heart free.
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