I was recently trying to explain to a terrific–if not slightly incorrupt–new friend what the word “clusterf**k” means. It was early in the day, I hadn’t slept much the night before, and my watery iced coffee (I love you, Dunkin Donuts, but really, a little more coffee and a little less ice) wasn’t doing the trick. Nothing I said made much sense. She continued to stare at me blankly.
And then it hit me. “You know, a clusterf**k? Like Friday night dinner?”
Light bulb. We suddenly understood each other perfectly.
Oh, Friday night dinner. You’re meant to be the highlight of the Jewish week. Each day we grow closer and closer to you, our anticipation measured by the lists and the shopping and the cooking and then the more shopping to get all the things we forgot, all of it building to a monumental crescendo of hope, promise, expectancy, and all of it ending in complete, unfettered, unmitigated disaster.
In short, a clusterf**k.
I’m writing this as a parent, because I have no memory of what Friday nights were like before kids, much the way I cannot, for the life of me, recall what a Sunday was like before it became the most exhausting day of the week.
It’s not that all the other nights are so easy, but the expectancy and hope that surrounds Friday night dinner, coupled with the complete breakdown of decorum, leads me to wonder: Is it at all reasonable to expect Friday nights to be anything less than awful? Should I take it up with the powers that be (to whom I have zero access) and suggest changing Shabbat dinner to Sunday night, possibly at 4:30 p.m.?
Here’s how it looks:
On Fridays, my children, who have been holding it together all week at home and at school (with mixed success, on both fronts), tumble off the school bus wild-eyed and crazy. If it were up to them they would spend the next 12 to 14 hours lying on the couch eating hot dogs and cheese crackers (though not together), and watching a combination of sports top 10 shows and crappy tween programming, with the occasional episode of “Calliou” tossed in to satiate the 3-year-old and to remind us all that patronizing children’s programming, complete with ponytailed mothers in overalls and wise grandmothers in turtlenecks (not to mention supremely annoying toddlers), is alive and well (and Canadian).
It is at this point, however, that I have been in a 24-hour frenzy of shopping and cooking. I am not on board with their plan. After an hour or so, I put an end to the couch-habitation and insist that they clean themselves up in some fashion and help me set the table for Shabbat dinner. Once in a while, one of the kids, hoping to show up the other kids, puts on a saintly act and audibly offers to help. But that child inevitably takes it one step too far. “Am I really more helpful than everyone else?” he or she asks in earshot of the couch crew, which usually results in a pounding and the first fight of the evening.
The second fight happens when I have to tackle the “but-I-showered-yesterday” monster. (Consequently, this usually comes from the kids who needs to shower the most.)
At some point, we get everyone upstairs. We light some candles, and pour some grape juice.
“She got more than me.”
“Why does he always get that cup?”
I won’t dignify any of these with my responses, but at some point we get them to drink the juice and move on to the challah, but not until we’ve all complained about the table plan.
“I want to sit next to you.” All week long nobody really wants to sit anywhere near me, but Friday night dinner becomes a virtual smack-down to see who can physically climb back into my uterus. This can go on for hours, but usually ends with someone getting up and leaving the table, refusing to return. Often, there is a slammed door.
Still, we soldier on through the too-hot chicken soup (“Why does she get two ice cubes in hers when I only got one?”) and usually that’s about it. Anything else I’ve made rarely surfaces because one kid refused to join us at all, one kid left during candle lighting, two got into a fight over the grape juice and… you get the idea.
We try to talk about what they’ve learned in school all week, but maybe “all week” is still too close, because it becomes a shouting match to show us who learned the most, or really, who can talk the longest and the loudest.
Disagreements that on any other night would be shrugged off, become world wars–with each child going from zero to really pissed off in about three seconds flat.
Food that they devour in other people’s houses (I have actual reports, actual reports) is suddenly untouchable, so revolting that it needs to be pushed away from the eater. Believe me when I tell you that we have been out for Friday night dinner and I have had the kids ask me to get the recipe for a dish that I myself make regularly. At least two of the kids will at least try a dish, but only after they have picked out all the things they don’t like (a mushroom, a walnut–why do I bother?) and put them on the table.
Oh, and of course each child (and have I mentioned that there are five of them?) makes sure to make a brief appearance at the table in order to spill something.
At some point, my husband and I, left alone at the table with its sodden, stained tablecloth and chunks of discarded challah and unwanted food, look at each in complete bewilderment.
And there’s the rub. EACH WEEK WE ARE SURPRISED. Not only is it like it’s never happened before, but it’s like it didn’t just happen LAST WEEK.
Because, come Wednesday, I will realize that tomorrow is Thursday, which means that Friday is only 48 hours away. Come Wednesday, I will start a brand new list on a fresh piece of white paper. Come Wednesday I will plan a menu that nobody will eat. Come Wednesday, I am born anew.
In short, I have no institutional memory. Each week I repeat the Kabuki dance of Shabbat dinner, convinced that THIS week is going to be the week that it all comes together for me.
I’ll let you know when it happens.