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Kristin Armstrong on Family Meals and Memories

Highs and Lows

Highs and Lows

When I was a kid, dinner was whateverthehell mom made.

She cooked, we came downstairs when called, and we all sat together and ate our dinner. Both my parents are from the Midwest, so dinner was mostly in the meat-and-potato genre. Dessert was a treat, not a regular deal. We drank milk or water, my parents included. We made conversation. And we cleared our plates when we were done.

Fast-forward to present-day mealtime at my house.

Wait, first let me say that I had/have every good intention of replicating the same wholesome vignette of my childhood. Once in a while, I get something that looks vaguely like it. But most of the time, dinner Chez Armstrong with teenagers looks something more like this:

I attempt to create childhood vignette meal, but with more vegetables. Ideally everyone is home, but often someone has sports or tutoring or a group project, so we aren’t always a complete party ready to be seated. I drink a glass of wine while I cook. No one drinks milk. In fact, I don’t think anyone has had an actual glass of milk since the sippy cup era. Now we have almond milk, coconut milk, or some version of new-age milk, and it is used only for cereal. I am not sure when this happened. Everyone is upstairs quarantined in their rooms, supposedly doing homework but probably Snapchatting on their phones, watching Netflix, or playing Xbox. I text-yell, “DINNER’S READY!!!” to my family group text about ten minutes before it’s actually ready. They come down and slowly filter into the kitchen about ten minutes after it’s done. We sit around the kitchen island, not the table. No one sits at the table. It just holds up a vase.

My children suspiciously lift pot lids or tinfoil covers and make faces that look nothing like gratitude. Mind you, I am my mother’s daughter and therefore a good cook. I try to remember who is now vegan, lactose-free, avoiding carbs or gluten, or trying to put on weight for football. These facts change regularly, so I just do my best and aim for variety. If my evening vegetable selection is a nonfavorite, a token piece of green will be placed on the plate but left untouched. We hold hands around the island and say a prayer, a daily nutritional dose of Catholicism. I miss the old kid prayer that sounded even cuter with lispy missing teeth, “God is great God is good let us thank him for our food. By his hands we are fed thank you Lord for our daily bread.” Followed by a very loud and rowdy “AHHHH-MEN – DIG-IN!!”

When I was a kid, dinner was whateverthehell mom made.

“Phones UP,” I always say. But they buzz and beep inside pockets and get surreptitious glances when my kids think I’m not looking. Organic, meaningful conversation is reduced to a round of “Highs and Lows,” which is admittedly better than nothing. My high is usually, “This family dinner, right now, with you.” But I don’t know that they have ever shared that sentiment. It’s more like, “Uh, my high is that Friday is in two days, and my low is that school sucks,” or, “I’m tired,” or something equally profound. Left to his own devices, Luke would always choose to drink straight out of the orange juice or chocolate milk container and use the kitchen towel as his napkin. I try to break him of these habits so his future wife can have a shred of respect for me and my mothering.

If they don’t like what I’ve made, or aren’t in the mood for it, or it doesn’t meet their current dietary requirements, they will push it around, eat a few bites, and later say they are starving and either eat cereal or want to Favor something. Hopefully not using my credit card.

After our dining experience is complete, the kids mumble something about needing to get back to homework, which, as I mentioned, is code for Xbox, Netflix, Facetime, or Snapchat. After all these years, they manage to bring their plates sort of close to the sink, rather than the inch or so below counter level and into the dishwasher. We’re still working on that part. Sometimes they scrape some leftovers onto the floor below, just to watch the dogs desperately scramble and snarl at each other. This is met with more laughter than was generated by our conversation, so I allow it. Daily shared laughter fosters connection. I read that in a parenting book back when I had time or inclination for such things.

“Thanks Mom,” (or “Mim,” as Luke calls me) they say as they head back up to their Lairs. I look at the clock. About 15 minutes have passed, maybe 20. I sometimes pour another glass of wine and start rinsing dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. I smile to myself and shake my head, somewhere between exasperation and gratitude, which is where I often find myself — and my smile — these days.

OK so maybe it doesn’t look much like my childhood, but I love it. All of it. This is my high. My low is that it’s fleeting.

God I’m going to miss this.