Why do Sea Otters Hold Hands While They are Sleeping?
And other hot-button topics at the Howe house
by Prentice Howe
Photograph by Casey Chapman Ross
It was late afternoon on July 4th. We were stopped at a traffic light off Mopac when a car came barreling down the wrong side of the median on William Cannon and crashed headfirst into the car beside us. Natalie and I jumped out to help. It was a bad scene. The female driver was dazed and appeared intoxicated. We found her young son slumped forward in the backseat. When Natalie lifted him up, blood poured from a gaping gash in his head. Our girls, Cameron, 8, and Mars, 7, watched on, just a few feet away as Natalie sat on the curb, holding the boy in her arms until EMS arrived.
There were a lot of questions at the dinner table that night.
Is the boy ok?
Will his mom see him again?
Why was she driving on the wrong side of the street?
For several months, the July 4th crash became the dinner table conversation we couldn’t shake. Tough exchanges, indeed, but the incident brought us closer and reinforced the importance of having a safe place where questions can be asked and no topic is off the table.
Dinnertime at The Howe House isn’t always so somber. A typical night brings a heaping serving of laughter, rapid-fire questions and interruptions. Lots and lots of interruptions. As parents, we are teaching the importance of listening and not talking over each other but admittedly, there’s more work to be done. Parenting is on-the-job training and while there are plenty of books on the topic, I’ve yet to find one written about our specific makes and models. Alas, a barrage of questions and a dearth of listening is our reality. It’s like our girls are foreign exchange students, jockeying to satiate their curiosity before returning to their homeland to report back on life in America.
Why do sea otters hold hands while they’re sleeping?
Why do daddies have hairy underarms?
Can you put the ‘avocado ball’ down the clogger? (Mars’ word for garbage disposal.)
What’s that silver thing you put on your chicken? (It’s tin foil, by the way.)
Pre-kids, I envisioned our dinnertime would be Norman Rockwell-esque. Healthy appetites with ample sides of good manners and good conversation. “Kids, how was your day at school?” would be answered by each child, one at a time, with thoughtful responses that cast light on their academic and social lives. As it turned out, our dinners are anything but. Meals begin the same way every night with Mars looking down at her plate and saying, “But, Mom, I don’t like (insert name of main course here).”
We eat at our kitchen table, saving the dining room for larger get-togethers with friends. Our table is conveniently close to the ice maker (crushed ice only, please) and within arm’s length of the back door so we can let our peanut bladder Labradoodle, Murray, outside on a moment’s notice. When he’s not going inside…outside…inside…outside…he uses mealtime to walk between our legs and lick our kneecaps. Sometimes he breaks wind and clears the room.
Natalie grew up with two sisters in a traditional military household. Mealtime was valued and had a predictable rhythm. They ate slowly and savored their conversations. Dinners were a bit more unorthodox in my house. Mom would sometimes start playing my electric guitar in the kitchen, which would inevitably turn into “fam jam” complete with a makeshift drum set of cast iron pots. When not singing REM songs, my sisters and I would bring up anything and everything—hurt feelings, favorite teachers, Dad’s work, Madonna’s appearance in Playboy, what’s new at The Limited, even uncomfortable puberty topics.
As products of the 80’s, Natalie and I were both casserole kids. Each of our moms had a penchant for working a can of cream of mushroom soup into most recipes. Today, as naturalized Texans, we favor Mexican food. If it can be wrapped in a tortilla, it’s fit to eat.
A typical night brings a heaping serving of laughter, rapid-fire questions and interruptions, lots and lots of interruptions.
As parents to two high energy girls, most of our meals give us indigestion, not because of the food but because of the pace. Blink and the kids will be in the living room with the Sonos cranked, dancing beneath the disco party bulb. (There’s no 30-minute “wait to digest” rule in our household.) Natalie does her best to slow the pace and incorporate substantive conversation. We keep The Ungame at the ready. It’s not so much a game as a stack of cards with questions to prompt conversation. “What is something you dislike about yourself?” or “Talk about a time when you felt guilty.”
I like to go around the table and have everyone say one thing they’re grateful for. Nine times out of ten the answers are things like “Double Dave’s pizza rolls” or “Murray’s booty” but sometimes we hit gold and hear something truly heartfelt like “I’m grateful for this meal and for my sister” or “I’m grateful that Mommy is a good designer and she takes care of us.” Focusing on gratitude is important.
Which brings me back to the dinner table conversation we couldn’t shake. It’s a reminder that no matter how chaotic or imperfect our mealtimes may be, we are grateful for our time together every day. And that the imperfections are what make life so perfect.
Gotta run. Murray just barfed up his heartworm pill.
Prentice Howe is owner of Door Number 3, an Austin-based advertising, branding and media agency. Natalie Howe is a residential designer and owner of Natalie Howe Design. They have two daughters, Cameron, 8, and Mars, 7, and a dog, Murray.