Growing up in my house, we had what was called the “Dinner Hour”. That’s mostly a thing of the past now. It was probably a thing of the past then. My neighborhood friends down the street never experienced a dinner hour. On a good day they managed a dinner five minutes. I didn’t even bother going home during their dinner because they could eat quicker than I could walk home and back. But at my house the dinner hour earned its name.
There was a certain routine to it all. Dad got home at six o’clock, kissed Mom, washed his hands, stepped outside the back door, put two fingers to his mouth, and let go a whistle that raised the hair on dogs for miles around. It carried over the noise of the radio (that’s what Mom called it—noise). It carried over the sound of the TV (which Mom called something else). It didn’t matter if we were inside, outside, or under water. When Dad whistled it was time to head home. No one could claim ignorance. We were left without excuse.
The worst part about Dad’s whistle was that all the neighbors recognized it. Mr. Stuit would stick his head out the window and say, “Supper’s ready, boy.” Mrs. Hansen would stop sweeping her steps long enough to point her broom handle in the general direction and say, “Better git on home now.”
At home the baseball caps and gloves were heaped up at the back door as everyone scurried to their place at the table. We had eight chairs pressed around a kitchen table made for six, plus a high chair in the corner. Even in those days kitchens weren’t built for nine.
Dad opened dinner with prayer which, as my friends pointed out, lasted longer than their dinner. Dad prayed for pretty much the same things every night. You didn’t have to guess what was important to him—Mom, us kids, our churches and schools. When Dad prayed we sat square on our chairs and we didn’t swing our legs. We folded our hands, bowed our heads, and closed our eyes. “Hallowed be Thy name” were more than words at my house.
Dinner was a time for talk, but mostly we younger kids kept quiet until Dad asked us something. And when he did ask, it was always the same thing, “What did you learn in school today?” Since I generally had no clue what I learned in school that day I tried to shrug. My little sister, who suffered no such memory loss, usually jumped in at this point. “He got in trouble on the bus, Dad.”
Now I was in real trouble. But then I was no stranger to trouble. All I had to do was say something like, “Me and Billy were just messing around.” The trick was to use his name. Say a name from school and Dad would scratch his head and start working out the family tree. “Billy who?”
“Billy VanderVender.” I already knew what the next question would be.
“Now who are his parents?” I didn’t have a clue who the parents of my friends were. But Mom would know. Then my behavior on the bus would be forgotten as Mom and Dad followed the VanderVender family back to someone old enough for them to know.
Eventually the topic would get back to school, and Dad would ask, “But I want to know what you learned in school today.” If he was in the mood to press it he would ask what I learned in Bible class. In all the years Dad asked me that question I don’t know that I ever answered it without help from Mom. Mom knew where I was in Bible. She’d say something like, “The crossing of the…,” then I could jump in, “Oh yeah, the crossing of the Red Sea.” Dad just shook his head.
You might expect that he would make a remark about the waste of tuition money he was paying, but he never did. Dad never complained about tuition, even though he didn’t have enough money to do a lot of things. I always suspected that he didn’t have enough money to do a lot of things that he didn’t want to do anyway. We would say, “Hey Dad, how about going to Disney World this summer.” He’d say, “We haven’t got money for that.” Or we would ask “Can we go to that pizza place with all the games?” “No,” he’d answer, “Too expensive.”
Dad had money to take us to Niagara Falls one year, but no money to get us into the wax museums when we got there. Another year he had money to take us to Mt. Rushmore, but no money to spend at the gift shop. But he always had money for tuition, and he always had money for school drives, and he never complained about either.
Dinner was finally coming to a close some fifty-five minutes after we had begun. Dad got the Bible out of the cupboard. The Bible we used at dinner was the size of airplane luggage. Pots and pans had to be rearranged on the table to make room for it. Dad read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and then back to Genesis. He didn’t skip the sections of Old Testament law, he didn’t skip the Song of Solomon, and he didn’t skip the genealogies, though I believe there were times he made up the names as he went.
Dad closed with prayer the same way he had opened. He prayed for pretty much all the same things—Mom, us kids, our churches and schools. With Dad you always knew what was important. And a good dinner and some news about our day didn’t change that a bit.