Every time I have the opportunity to dine, that is eat somewhere other than in front of my computer or over my kitchen sink, I find myself at some point in the meal contemplating etiquette, specifically, table manners. I mean, who taught these people how to eat? And, who decided that what we all do when we think we aren’t being watched is unacceptable, anyway?
I have to admit that my own early training in these matters is sorely lacking. Meals in my childhood home were served on an old ‘50s style dinette table with indestructible melamine plates, glasses carefully collected from the depths of laundry detergent boxes, and stainless “silver ware” acquired one piece at a time from the Betty Crocker coupon redemption catalog. Each place setting consisted of one plate, one glass (to the left of the plate for my Dad), and a fork, knife, and spoon clustered in no particular order or orientation somewhere near the center of the plate. Nary a tablecloth, place mat or napkin was to be found. The fact that there were only four of us made the act of reaching across the small table for salt or more potatoes seem like a perfectly reasonable protocol.
More formal meals invariably took place in my Grandmother’s enormous kitchen. There the entire extended family, consisting of my mother’s parents, their five children with spouses and thirteen grandchildren, their two foster children, and any strays we might have collected, would crowd around her kitchen table and a couple of card tables hauled in from the barn. Cherished tablecloths would be brought out of the closet and the tables set with Granny’s collection of old “china.” Not fine china, but stuff that would actually break if you dropped it. Everyone at the main table usually had matching plates and maybe even matching glasses. A tribute to Granny’s good taste, the secondary tables were set with an interesting assortment of mismatched pieces that somehow worked beautifully together. Paper napkins were available upon request and it was mandatory to pass the potatoes when asked.
Those meals at Granny’s house, on Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas each year, are the heart and soul of my childhood. There was easily enough food to feed four times the number of people present, even people who ate as much as we did. Near the end of the meal, when we began to think about clearing the table, Granny would suddenly realize there were at least three pies that hadn’t been touched. Invariably, someone would respond to her offer of a second dessert with, “No thanks. I’m full.” When I was still in grade school, this would result in a quiet collective gasp and a moment of silence while the offender was given the evil eye. Finally, the culprit would say, “I’ve had plenty, thank you.” And the meal would resume.
As I grew older, this became something of a family joke. When offered a third helping of chocolate cake, my uncle would respond, “I’ve dined sufficiently, thank you,” with his version of a British accent and everyone would chuckle. Most of us eventually learned the magic phrase, “I’ve had plenty thank you.” Only my uncles had the courage to try the “dined sufficiently” bit. Only the very young uttered the phrase, “I’m full,” in her presence.
The last time I can remember anyone being full in Granny’s kitchen was one of the last meals we shared as a family. The ritual proceeded as it had on similar occasions for over twenty years. While most of us were pushing our chairs back from the table and thinking, “I’m full,” one of the great-grandchildren (my cousin’s second child, I think) actually said it. “I’m full.” Everyone giggled a little and waited for the youngster to correct himself. When Granny’s evil eye didn’t produce the desired result, she finally said, “I’ve had plenty, thank you.” To which the child responded, “Oh! Are you full too?”
Not long after that now legendary meal, Granny died. Unlike my other grandparents, she didn’t die of cancer or anything dramatic. She simply, gradually and quietly succumbed to the inevitable deterioration of old age. Having carefully planned her funeral she ultimately excused herself from life much as she had from the dinner table. Her last words might well have been, “I’ve had plenty, thank you.”
Of course, it wasn’t until years later that I began to realize the larger lesson Granny had tried to teach us.
Much of my life seems to be about leaving. Having never stayed with a job more than 4 years, the usual sequence of events is passion, disillusionment, boredom and leaving for greener pastures. My love stories are similar, but usually end when the other person leaves me behind. The point is, all of these relationships end when someone has had enough and decided it’s time to move on.
It is tempting, when you are the leaver rather than the “leave-ee,” to either slink away silently while the other party wonders what happened, or to engage in cathartic ravings about the faults in the relationship that finally became unbearable. These forms of bridge-burning are rude and short-sighted. After all, who knows when you might want to establish a new relationship with these people?
The better strategy, in my mind, is to accept that all relationships must end, if only in death. Sometimes we leave. Sometimes we are left. While it may be difficult to face those you are leaving behind without trying to punish them for driving you away, you owe yourself and the others involved acknowledgment of your decision to move on.
No lengthy, graphic explanations are required. In relationships as at the dinner table, no one wants to hear how fed up you are. A simple, “I’ve had plenty, thank you,” says it all.