Oh, Those Family Dinners by
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Mealtime

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My mother prepared dinner every night for my dad, my brother and me. Meat, potatoes, Birds Eye frozen vegetables. Once in a while a fresh salad. But in those days, fresh vegetables, especially in the winter, were hard to come by. I can still see my mom with her white and red flowered apron tied around her waist, bustling around the kitchen, getting everything ready so she could run to the train station to pick up my father.

He came home from the city (New York) on the 6:18 LIRR train. The three of us sat in the car at the Roslyn station and watched  the passengers (mostly men) disembark, looking for the tall, handsome man in his brown Brooks Brothers overcoat and matching fedora that was my father. When he saw us, my mother got out of the car and moved to the passenger seat so he could drive. My brother and I sat quietly in the back seat waiting to see what would unfold. If dad had been in the Bar Car with his buddies, his voice had a gruff cadence than made me nervous. I often got a stomach ache before dinner.

We sat in a dining booth in the kitchen of our Levitt house. I picked at my food because it hurt to eat it. My dad would yell at me to eat. “Your mom slaved over this for you and your brother,” he’d say. Or something like that. “Eat it!” Sometimes he’d ask me to go find the Tabasco Sauce for him, something he put on everything he ate before he even tasted it. If I couldn’t find it, he’d say I couldn’t find my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders. Often, I got up from the table and ran into my room, slammed the door and cried in my pillow, wishing he were dead.

On rare occasions, when things had gone well at work and he hadn’t had too much to drink on the train, he’d bring home petit fours from Horn and Hardart’s or delicious donuts from Mary Elizabeth’s. And on the weekends he’d go to the bakery and deli after his tennis game and bring home bagels and lox and cream cheese. On weekends he made up for all his bad behavior during the week, and I made up for all the meals I didn’t eat during he week.

Needless to say, family dinners have not been a high point of my adult years. Although when I was first married to my first husband and he was an intern at a hospital here in Oakland, on 36 hour shifts, I tried. I would get up at 5 in the morning and prepare a gourmet meal that we shared before he disappeared for all those hours. Then I would bring him dinner in the doctor’s lounge when they gave him a half hour break in the evening. But I didn’t really like cooking, and he didn’t really like Western medicine, and we didn’t really like being married. So you can see where this was headed.

To this day, I do like bagels and lox, though. And I’m very good at preparing it!

Profile photo of Penny K Penny Righthand

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    The description of waiting for you father, wearing his Brooks Brother coat and hat, coming off the train, sounds like a scene from “Mad Men”. You don’t tell us what he his work was, but it doesn’t matter. You set the stage for those unhappy meals so well, Penny. Your stomach ache, the yelling, slamming doors; I could feel the tension and your unhappiness, only mollified by the occasional petit-fours or after-tennis bagels and lox. That made up for a lot.

    Getting up at 5am to make a nice meal for your intern husband shows great valor. Your really were trying! But you clue us in about cooking and that marriage. And I love your last paragraph. As someone who also does not enjoy cooking, I can relate.

    • Betsy, Thanks for reading and commenting. I was reluctant to write this since everyone seems to write mostly about their fond memories. I suspect we all lived through some less-than-happy times. I write about mine a lot. It feels good and honest to me to dredge them up sometimes. Therapeutic, as Dana called it;-)
      So glad to find an ally in the I-don’t-enjoy-cooking world:-)

  2. Oh Penny, in your well-written and moving sorry I was sorry to read of your painful childhood mealtime memories.

    I’m sure over the years you’ve created many happier memories to balance those early, hurtful ones. Please tell me that’s true and that writing about them is therapeutic.

    • Dana, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It meant a lot. Of course my life has been full of wonderful memories, even with my father, in the years since. But it is too bad those unpleasant old memories surface so easily. I write about my childhood a lot. It seeps into my (mostly unpublished, so far) fiction through my characters. And I’m sure it’s therapeutic;-) Thanks for asking!

  3. Good Penny, I’m glad you find your writing therapeutic and good luck with the possibly to-be-published fiction!

    Years ago my husband and I participated in a human potential weekend-long workshop where some talked about unhappy relationships with their parents.

    I remember the facilitator saying “your parents did the best they could.” That seemed to give many the ability to forgive. (Now that I’m a parent I know it ain’t easy, but I do the best I can!)

  4. Suzy says:

    Penny, I’m glad you wrote this honest and painful story about your family mealtimes when you were a child and also with your intern husband. I think over the years many of us have written stories with less-than-fond memories. My story “The Milk Bottle” is about my father throwing a glass milk bottle at me in anger as I ran away from the dinner table. You might want to read it. Anyway, it’s too bad your father had a job that he probably hated, and a Bar Car on the train coming home. Otherwise your family dinners might have been better.

    I’m glad you and your first husband figured things out (I’m sure there’s a story there). I don’t like cooking either, and I don’t think I would have been willing to get up at 5 am to cook a gourmet meal, so I’m impressed that you would do that at all.

    Bagels and lox is one of my favorite meals, with cream cheese too, and maybe even capers. Just the right amount of preparation involved!

  5. I’m with Suzy – I’m also a whiz at lox & bagels! (To make the presentation look even better take a bit more effort and sprinkle some dill weed over the lox with the capers!)

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    I really appreciated this well-written and candid story that expressed the pain so well. If you survived all that without getting an eating disorder–kudos! Parents maybe forget how every little thing is felt so keenly and internalized by children, and I hope that time and memory has given some helpful perspective for you. I was interested that your husband was an intern in Oakland, since I worked there for so long. Seems that almost all the hospitals have merged since then. He got a royal treatment from you (see my entry on “lunchbox”–my gourmet meal ha ha). Thanks for your story.

    • Khati
      Thanks for your comment. My daughter thinks I have an eating disorder b/c I eat about a tenth of what her giant teenage boys eat;-) But somehow I got a way lucky.
      I was a nurse back then; graduated from U of M and we moved to Oakland where Robert interned at Kaiser. There was a food court across the street where we ate many meals at very weird hours. What did you do in Oakland? I still (or rather, again) live in Oakland. It’s pretty awful now in a lot of ways, unfortunately. So many sad, mentally ill, angry, unhoused folks. Never thought I’d see this in my country.

      • Khati Hendry says:

        Penny, it seems we have crossed paths a few times. U of M? As in Michigan? I grew up largely in East Lansing. I lived and worked in Oakland (also was in SF for med school) for over twenty years—family physician and administrator at La Clinica de la Raza in the Fruitvale. Was a member of Oakland Kaiser then too. Moved to Canada in 2004, but was just back there visiting—have a social worker niece living near Lake Merritt, and many friends. It does seem the poor city is struggling in these crazy times, but I have a very warm place in my heart for it and the many good hearted people who still call it home.

        • Khati
          Yep. Ann Arbor, Michigan. That U of M;-)
          And La Clinica was one of my clients! So weird!
          I live on Lake Merritt! Have for 22 years. But living here is becoming very unpleasant of late. Too bad we didn’t meet when you were here. Next time you come, let me know. So curious how our paths have crossed!
          I’m thinking of moving to Canada if Trump get re-elected. TBH, I don’t think I can survive another 4 years of him. Where do you live there? Was it difficult to emigrate? Are you working up there?

          • Khati Hendry says:

            Crossed paths indeed! So sorry we didn’t meet up recently–I was walking along the southeast shore of Lake Merritt with my niece, probably within eyesight of your place. Next time! Or come here–I am in Penticton, BC in the Okanagan Valley, inland from Vancouver in the heart of wine and fruit growing. I immigrated under a work permit as a professional, and then gained permanent residency and dual citizenship, just recently retired. Not so easy to get the necessary points as years march on. Let hope the point is moot, and no one is subjected to another Trump presidency. Feel free to contact me at khatihendry@yahoo.ca.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    I also grew up in a tense home with a volatile, alcoholic parent. I feel your pain.

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