If I could point to a time in my life when I was the happiest and the most miserable it would be dinner time in the Matua home. Why? Well because it was a time when I grew closer to my family but it was also a time when I felt my most vulnerable and my spirit was pliant because mom’s food was delicious and I loved the familiar banter.
Every night as our family gathered for our evening meal, my parents would engage us in the proceedings of the day. Like most American families, dinner time was a good time for catching up. Unlike most American families we grew up with one foot firmly rooted in mainstream Americana while the other foot stood persistently on traditional Samoan values. Everything in our lives, Samoan and American was also heavily influenced, entrenched and explained through my parents abiding love for God so our conversations were lighthearted but often became a tender teaching moment for our parents and a learning experience for us, their children.
There were of course times when the conversations veered toward more serious matters like missing homework assignments, teasing siblings and destroying the neighbors’ vegetable garden. These topics were grave and somber affairs in which the kalave elegi (fried mackerel and gravy over a bed of rice anyone?) went down in solid clumps because my throat constricted at the thought of being reprimanded or worse yet, being a disappointment to them. But even in those situations when I felt like I was at fault or the weight of the world was on my shoulders for neglecting a class project on a Monday that was due on Tuesday morning, my parents never made me feel as if the world teetered on the brink of extinction because of my failing grade in Social Sciences with Mrs. Eyring.
I miss those nights more than anything. Especially now that me and my siblings are essentially ‘orphans’ though in Samoan culture one is never truly without parental guidance because there are always aunties, uncles, grandparents and the like to step in with sage advice. There is something about good food and good company that eases tension, relaxes the mood. In that rarified moment when it seemed like the cares of the world were non-existent and the pressures of being an All-American kid in the Samoan skin suit seemed okay for the night, we talked, we shared, we laughed, we were taught and we felt complete as individuals and as a family.
I recall a particular moment when I was fighting with one of my siblings about some inconsequential thing that children often fight about when I reached over and smacked her as hard as I could. I was angry; infuriated really. It was that white hot anger that makes your breaths come in ragged gasps and for a brief moment there are white spots exploding like fireworks in the periphery of your vision and your heart is struggling to pump enough oxygen into your blood. It is that volatile, violent moment when your mind clicks off but your body is moving at hyper speed and all you want to do is destroy something or someone. It is the kind of anger that scares others, but for the angry one it also casts an dreadful fear in you because its clawing at your brain begging you to stop but you can’t because your anger is, at that very moment, a much more stronger emotion that you cannot control.
I have felt that anger many times. I felt it then when I smacked my sister with what I knew even then was very little provocation. My father was furious. My mother was appalled. She was cooking dinner. He had just come home from a long day of working two jobs to feed his family. As we all sat down for dinner I wondered if I was going to be sent out into the cold night to fend for myself. I felt the tension in my shoulders and could see it on my parents’ faces. My siblings were eagerly awaiting the pronouncement of my punishment. I felt as if I was sitting on a pin cushion and my head was about to explode.
The minutes ticked into eternity and my mom’s food tasted bland and cold in my mouth when dad finally stared down the long table at me, took a sip from his cup and then said in that familiar, rich baritone voice, “A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1).” He uttered the words in Samoan and then again in English and by the second time I finally caught the meaning of the Biblical phrase.
“I can tell you that you’re a bad kid and that you’re a horrible brother. But the truth is, you’re a good kid with a bad temper and you love your siblings but you don’t know how to show it,” dad said without breathing. I then realized that I wasn’t breathing along with him and neither was anyone else at the table.
“If you’re so mad that you don’t know how to deal with it,’ mom added, ‘you get out of this house and walk. You walk until your heart hurts worse than your feet. And when that happens, you come back and apologize for your behavior. Don’t you ever hit your brothers or your sisters again, do you hear me?”
I nodded my agreement because opening my mouth to say ‘yes’ would have resulted in a whimper of embarrassment. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks as I gulped down a bite of food and ventured a look at my dad.
He nodded back at me then said, “When you’re done you help your mom clean up, you take a shower then you take that walk. Okay?”
“Yes dad,” I tried to say but it sounded more like something a guy eating his teeth would sound like. And that was it. I had been chastised, warned and taught several very valuable lessons over dinner and not a single voice was lifted in emotion, not a single leather strap was used, not a single soul was torn apart or scarred but rather our spirits were buoyed up and challenged to be better.
I’ve taken many ‘angry walks’ in life. I had many wonderful dinners with my parents and we continue the tradition with my siblings to this day. I do it with my own sons and my lovely wife. We eat dinner. We talk. We laugh. We are taught and we learn. Dinner time is family time and it has slowly and surely slipped away from the landscape of our lives.
We are too busy. We are distracted by technology; telling a whole world of people who don’t care about us, things that we should be saying to the people whom we care about the most. We eat fast food because we’re in a hurry to get from one frivolous activity to another equally frivolous activity that we insist is building our children into good human beings but all the while we are just finding ways to squander away time until we no longer have enough time together to say what we’ve been typing into our Facebook Status.
What happened to dinner? What happened to sitting down together to discuss what is happening in the world and in the tiny worlds that we build around us? It’s gone but not forgotten and it can be recalled and reinstated if we just make the time.
Is dinner time still important? I might still be a flippant, angry, social pariah today had it not been for a simple dinner meal at a simple dinner table consumed by people who cared enough to share food and a thought for one another at a time when spiritual nourishment was equally as vital as the physical.
What are you having for dinner? I hope it includes memorable moments like mine.