Dinner Decorum with My Father

For as long as I can remember, Thursday was pizza night at my dad’s house. On Fridays, our ritual was equal parts Viking, Persian, and American.

If there was not a home football or basketball game for our high school, regardless of the weather my dad would fire up the grill. Pork chops (which is where I developed my love of them and why I thought it was okay to out my dad as a closeted pork eater), steaks, chicken, you name it we grilled it.

Inside, on the stove top, we always had a pot of rice—polo not kateh for those of you Iranians keeping tabs. And there was usually a salad of sorts or some greens and radishes.

“In those days, my house was like Grand Central Station for the neighborhood kids,” my dad told me.

We would do our running around the neighborhood, but by dinner time we would all be back for whatever my dad was prepping on the grill.

Most of our friends were regulars, so they understood the decorum. Which wasn’t much more than ‘try a little of everything, AS IS, if not Mo Daddy will find a way to squeeze it on your plate.’

Newcomers would often violate corollary (asking for condiments with your food), we would try to stop them, but we would not be fast enough.

One such occasion came when I was in high school, one of my less experienced friends joined us. Grilled meats, rice (one bowl of plain rice, another bowl of rice with egg yolk), and salad. We had all spent much of the time after school playing basketball. Needless to say, we were famished.

The veterans and I had already scooped up our plates, piled them high with food, and were taking up our spots in front of the TV. Some were on the couch, some sat on the floor. All were busy scarfing down whatever was on our plates. Seconds were a must.

One of our friends, the rookie, was a little slower. As he walked the ten steps into the living room from the kitchen, he mumbled something about soy sauce and turns around to go back to the impromptu buffet line.

As he gets back into the kitchen we hear him start, “Hey Mo Daddy?”

“Yes, my handsome man,” responds my father.

We all know what is about to happen and are powerless to stop it.

“Do you have any soy sauce?”

‘Shit,’ we all look at each other, thinking the same thing, ‘he’s got no clue.’

“My handsome son, do you not like my rice?”

“No, I don’t eat rice without soy sauce.”

“My rice isn’t just any rice, you don’t need soy sauce. Try the rice without it, son.”

At this point, my dad has given my friend two opportunities to walk away without any repercussions.  He has failed to see the clear signs that the road is ending soon and he needs to respectfully exit. For our part, we are powerless to stop the impending train wreck.

“I need the soy sauce.”

“SON! Eat the rice as it is, there is no soy sauce. If you don’t like it, then you can put it back.”

You should realize that my dad was not sitting with us. He was in a nearby room, sitting and eating like a king, happy that his vassals were supplied with all they needed. His contentment was destroyed by the crime of asking for soy sauce with Persian rice. It was something you neither did, nor insisted upon. Decorum was breeched.

Cognizant he would not win, my friend ended up adding some more butter and salt. When he sat down, we all looked at him as if he had committed high treason. All we could do was shake our heads and hope he does not make the same mistake twice—or at least brings his own soy sauce, even then he would be courting disaster.

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Don’t Get Hyper About It

At some point, every son musters up the courage to stand up to their father. They put their foot down over some trivial matter in an effort to show independence or to show up their paternal figure. It is a rite of passage. And usually goes horribly wrong, but inevitably makes the relationship stronger.

After my parents divorced and after being prodded by my brother to let us meet his family, my father drove my siblings and me to California. None of us were old enough to drive, so he was stuck manning the wheel solo. My sister and brother helped to navigate. I, too young to be of much assistance, sat in my car seat sucking my thumb.

For any parent, a road trip can be an extreme stressor. For my dad, this was a whole other level of stress. He had just finalized his divorce with my mother. He had not seen much of his family in many years. AND he had to drive a 1978 Ford Maverick, what we in my high school years would dub a hoopty, all by himself with three young kids at varying states of defiance. Combine that with his (at that time) notoriously short fuse, it was a recipe for disaster.

The trip itself took nearly a week. We would drive several hundred miles, four to five hours max. My siblings and I would get restless, my father would be on the verge of exploding, and just as things were about to go nuclear, an oasis would appear on the horizon in the form of a rest area, hotel, or some sort of resort. We would pull over for the rest of the day to recharge.

As we entered California on our first trip across the country in 1986, whatever plan my father implemented for relaxation the night before had failed. In all honesty, I think the main stressor was the fact he was about to visit his family. Those visits and any other since then always triggered something in my father. I have never asked him what it is that causes him the most stress or why his family is a trigger.

My father was loading up the car. Something had triggered his fuse. I was being uncooperative, Meena and Jacob were not helping either. Things were going downhill fast.

At some point, aware of the impending doom, and being just precocious enough to not really care of potentially making things worse, I stop sucking my thumb and look straight at my father, who at that time was raising his voice and angrily packing and repacking the car.

“You don’t have to get so hyper about it,” I blurted out. Not really understanding what ‘it’ was or understanding that my father’s rage could have had a second-strike capability.

My siblings, having fully understood what could have come next, looked at each other in shock.

‘David has no clue what he’s stepped in,’ they thought.

I promptly stuck my thumb back in my mouth having satisfied my urge to let my father know I disapproved of his behavior.

For his part, my father seemed to have gotten the message. ‘Calm down, Mohammad, what’s the point of getting angry with your children who aren’t responsible for your anger. You should be happy about visiting your relatives. You should be happy your kids are with you. You should be happy they want to see your family too,’ he told himself.

My father and I have had a rocky relationship, but even in the moments of shouting and fury, we have still found ways to understand each other, to get our message across, even if it took several tries. Maybe this was the first time we communicated on a higher plane.