A routine paper towel commercial recently reminded me of how aggravated my parents always became during spilled milk situations at the kitchen table. In contrast to the calm demeanor of the modern mom in the televised ad as liquid flowed, my parents were instantly on their feet, mopping and sopping – all the while yelling at us for being careless or “putting foolishness through ourselves.” Yes, we spilled lots of milk during our years on River Road; but there was so much more.
Indeed, our kitchen table was where we ate our meals. It took a really special occasion to move the proceedings to the living room: the TV airing of Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz qualified. And there was the time the first four of us were riding out a siege of mumps, when Mother allowed us to utilize our little table and chair set from the toy corner. We slurped and suttled our way through bowls of Campbell’s tomato soup without spills, although one sister dared to dump her entire cup of milk into her soup bowl.
Once a year, my parents set up the big wooden dining table in the middle of the living room, added leaves, and covered it with a noontime spread for the neighborhood farmers who were helping each other fill silos. As the men headed out again, we kids chowed down on their leftovers – right there in the living room.
Those times were the exceptions. Although lunch was usually a catch-as-catch-can sandwich, we spent our breakfast and supper times around the kitchen table. As children graduated from the high chair to a regular chair, the number of places there expanded. In the absence of booster seats, we made height adjustments by sitting on a Sears catalog or two or on a block of wood.
The table itself, a white wooden one in my recollection, was always covered with a protective if not decorative vinyl tablecloth. In the center stood a motley collection of condiments: shakers of salt and pepper along with jars of peanut butter, jelly, and apple butter. The ketchup bottle was there beside containers of mustard – horseradish for my father and mild yellow for everyone else. Of course, the butter dish from the fridge always joined the grouping with the occasional appearance of pancake syrup, my father’s homemade maple syrup in addition to cinnamon sugar in a metal shaker and vinegar in a fancy cruet. And let’s not forget the ever-present toothpick holder.
Setting the table was one of the first family chores required of the youngest children. Mismatched plates and bowls served as our “everyday” dishes, and the cups from which we spilled our milk were plastic with handles: we each had our own personal cup. The adults drank from barrel-shaped glass tumblers and used a complete silverware set of fork, knife, and spoon. We kids were permitted spoons only for the longest time – mine was a smooth silver utensil about six inches in length, while one sister’s spoon had a looped handle.
Getting a meal to the table involved a set of customary activities. My father transferred the milk he brought from the barn in a sort of dented milk pan to the pitcher for the table, while Mother filled serving dishes and plates with meat, a starchy side, and a vegetable. One of us offered grace in the form of God is great!/God is good… or Thank you for the world so sweet/Thank you for the food we eat… – unless my father moved things along with an Army prayer: Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, for example.
Should we turn up our noses at any food, we heard oft-repeated reminders about being too well fed from parents who had survived the Great Depression. Mother fretted about her lumpy gravy, while my father salivated at the thought of cornbread and beans like his mother used to make. We cheered homemade desserts of chocolate pudding or gingerbread with whipped cream – and fought over the single cherry found in every can of fruit cocktail. And we spilled our milk.
We had to ask permission to be excused, to “get down from the table.” That routine could be interrupted, however, if Mother began telling stories about her bossy sister and rascally brother or if my dad decided to talk about his war years in Germany and Austria.
Oh, plenty of other things went on at the kitchen table. Short on counter space, Mother rolled out pie crusts and homemade noodles there. That was where my father drank an extra cup of coffee and worked the crossword puzzle in the UDC. I did extra algebra problems there early in the morning, and Mother helped me study spelling bee words there after the other kids had gone to bed.
Our time around the kitchen table was, then, so much more than spilled milk or the number of cherries in the fruit cocktail. The kitchen table, with its foods and rituals and conversations, represented the childhood we were so fortunate to live. Just as we knew our place at the table, just as we recognized which spoon belonged to whom, just as we could recite our parents’ stories about family and life – and even lectures about spilling milk – we grew up in a cocoon of stability and security that started around the kitchen table.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.