Always chew with your mouth closed

You may notice after a long stretch of days at home that members of your family are loud eaters. It is probably normal to be annoyed by minor irritations that were unnoticeable on the days when everyone had too much to do to sit down and eat together.

We’re always reminding our kids to sit down in their chairs, use napkins instead of their shirts, and not to make repetitive noises with no apparent communicative value just for fun. Sometimes, toward the end of a meal, we, the adults, just look at each other and sigh and slump until it’s time to clean up.

After a long stretch of together time, small annoyances add up. The other day, toward the end of our Christmas vacation, we were eating together when my husband and I found ourselves exchanging desperate glances. It was two days until the January start of the spring semester at school. We’re both teachers, and a feeling had come over us like a low pressure system. You know that feeling when it’s about to storm hard?

“Chew with your mouth closed,” my husband Dan said to our 10-year-old son Oliver.

“I’ll just go eat in the den,” said Oliver, noticeably wounded.

“Oh Oliver, you don’t need to go eat in the den,” Dan said.

Watching Oliver, I thought about how he’s a cute boy and a great kid, but he would have been leaning just a little too close to his plate if we had been eating in a fancy restaurant. We weren’t, but you try to teach your kids manners so that they aren’t embarrassed one day when they are in public. One thing that drives me nuts is when my family members lick their fingers. Incidentally, I have also reminded my kids not to go to someone else’s house and announce that it’s dirty because I have had visiting children do that to me.

“The goal,” I said to Oliver, “is to eat like you aren’t very hungry.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s kind of dumb. It’s to give the impression that you are civilized.”

The whole thing reminded me of the time when Dan and I were on our honeymoon in Paris. He’d been an exchange student there after high school, spending a year at school in Belgium. Then he’d returned to Europe for a few months shortly after we started dating, so he was more versed in European etiquette than I was.

Still, I had been thinking I was doing pretty well not coming across as an “ugly American.” I wore a lot of black and the Parisians spoke French to me on numerous occasions, mistaking me for one of them. My biggest mistake was that reflexive American smile. You can’t help it when you’re from a small town here. It’s just a habit. I’d smile at women in Paris lobbies and they’d scowl in return.

On one of our days in Paris, Dan and I were sitting in a café and he remarked about how I had this habit of scraping my fork against my teeth when I ate. He’d never mentioned it before. In the year and a half we’d spent dating in the United States, I’d never gotten the sense that he was embarrassed of me. Suddenly I had the feeling he was trying to teach me table manners before I met his host family in Brussels.

The time we spent in Belgium was the best of our honeymoon because Dan knew his way around well enough that I didn’t feel like such a tourist. When we spent time with his Belgian family, everyone spoke English just for my benefit. I was the only one who didn’t speak French.

But then we were sitting in a Belgian waffle house and I got out a mirror. I was about to put on some Chapstick when Dan said, “Don’t do your makeup.”

He was embarrassed of me again. And I hadn’t even done anything. And it really was just a waffle house, not even a café.

Granted, the Belgian waffle house was a little more stylish than the variety we’ve got here in Winchester, Virginia, but that isn’t saying much. The waffle houses here are where college kids go at 3 a.m. to shovel in some greasy hash browns after a night of debauchery. The Belgian waffle house had more of a trendy coffee shop sort of atmosphere, comparatively. Still, there were kids in there with blue hair, and I don’t think anybody was paying attention to my Chapstick habits.

I hadn’t thought for many years of those times on our honeymoon when my husband had corrected my table manners, but I remembered when he told Oliver to chew with his mouth closed, and I told Oliver. He seemed to enjoy the story.

When you are with your family and you’ve spent enough time together in the house that the sound of chewing is starting to drive you insane, one way to cure the problem, if you’re not snowed in, is to leave the house. It would be preferable to leave alone, but if you are a parent, the chances are good that your children may also be in need of an outing.

So we went to church, which was nice. It was crowded, though, even the week after Christmas, when you would think it would not be. We had promised the kids we would go out to eat afterward, and I was hoping for Chinese because I figured a Chinese restaurant would be less crowded on a Sunday when the largest population of folks in our area is in more of a country buffet kind of mood.

Lately, we base almost all of our decisions about what to do in and around Winchester on how crowded it is likely to be.

But it was not yet 11 a.m. when we finished with church and the Chinese restaurants were not due to open for an hour. We ended up at Cracker Barrel.

There was only a five-minute wait to be seated, but there was standing room only in the lobby area where we stood elbow-to-elbow with a roomful of hungry people that included senior citizens, young families with squirmy babies, and men in camouflage hats. Just as our kids started asking to buy toys and candy, the hostess called our name.

I watched as she directed the waitresses on how to seat another party, telling them which tables to move in which direction.

“You’re like an air traffic controller,” I said to her.

She looked at me and smiled one of those smiles that says, “Lady, I’d really like to kill you right now.”

We sat down and placed our order.

“I am so glad I don’t work here,” Dan said. “I wouldn’t last an hour.”

I agreed. Suddenly, the weight of the pending school semester seemed lighter. Actually, I think that I could handle working in Cracker Barrel’s gift shop, although not the restaurant. I always found the pace of retail much more tolerable than food service.

It was loud and chaotic in there. The food took longer than usual to arrive. We watched parents struggle with their toddlers and understood that, even if we could barely hear each other over the din, at least I wasn’t trying to nurse an infant while sitting in a corner behind a table full of men in camouflage. Not that anyone cared what anyone else was doing in the Wild West of Cracker Barrel’s rush hour.

By the time we paid the bill, we had conceded to the children’s requests for candy, despite the fact that Annabelle had neglected to eat her lunch as usual, because at that point we would have paid any price to leave. We certainly would not have noticed the sound of anyone chewing in Cracker Barrel.

Then we came back home, so happy to be safely back on our own side of town, where there is unfortunately no Starbucks, but if you drive 10 more miles west, there’s nothing but trees and pickup trucks.

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