Best Worst Year: Episode 17 (Or, My Dinner with Andre’s Parents)

I picked the wrong week to start being “healthy.” It’s Saturday afternoon in The Cracker Barrel and I’m having Easter Dinner with my parents. In less than five minutes, my dad has already asked for biscuits and corn muffins twice, I have picked straw paper out of both my parents’ waters, and my mom has asked me when I’m going to get my haircut.

Saturday. Cracker Barrel. Our names in the local papers. Hail of gunfire. A butter knife.

My dad is pouring ice into his coffee. It’s too hot. How can you drink this coffee when it’s so hot?
My mom has been telling us how much she loves the chicken fried steak. It’s why we’re here. In less than ten minutes from now, she’ll order the grilled chicken and wild rice special. She’ll hate it. An hour from now, I’ll be banging my head off my steering wheel with the penitent rhythmic intensity of a novelty drinking bird on a six day moonshine bender.

Saturday. Easter dinner? Yes, a 2pm Easter dinner a whole day ahead of the holiday to beat the Cracker Barrel traffic. If you tell my parents that the best time to eat at a restaurant is at 4:37 Wednesday morning because the blue plate special is at its peak for quantity and cheapness, they would be there… and my mom would probably order something she doesn’t like.

It wasn’t always like this–my parents didn’t always determine their dining options based on esoteric tea leaf readings and val-u-pak coupons. They were reasonable, functional, and–dare I say it–people who had legitimate tastes and appetites. That said, my mom has always been picky. She’s a hell of a cook so she’s got a pretty legit measuring stick. My dad and I didn’t become the husky male models we are by mom’s lack of cooking mojo. That lady will kick your ass with one hand tied behind her apron… oh, and she’ll be quietly judging you at the same time.

But taste in food isn’t the only thing which has been summarily surrendered in their sixties. Twenty minutes into dinner, my dad compliments an instrumental version of “Yesterday” which is somewhere between Muzak and Kenny G–the intersection of Dead Inside and “Cracker” Barrel. Twenty three minutes into dinner, everyone’s unhappy as I have spent three minutes asking if “actually liking real fucking music” will also come back tomorrow along with Jesus. There was a time where my childhood home was filled with the music of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Sr., Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones, and Elvis. Occasionally, there would be forays into Motown as well; this was a house which gave me a solid foundation for my own musical obsession. I remember turning my dad onto Social Distortion in high school–he loved Mike Ness’ vocals and fell in love with their version of Patsy Cline’s “Making Believe.”

Nowadays, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between music, a dishwasher, and Pitbull (insert your own joke here–I’m not in the business of spoon feeding today). It’s kind of disheartening–as obsessed with music as I am, to have the first influence on my wholesale geekdom sputter out into humming along to Taylor Swift on the radio (“That Taylor Dane’s really got something to say, Jim. Why are you sticking your head into the oven? You know we have an electric stove, right?”) always sends a cautionary chill down my spine: Is this my future?

Granted, I should be so lucky to grow up and be my parents. My mom left the Philippines by herself at the age of 23 to move literally half a world away to Hazelton (you know, the city best known for then-mayor-now-congressmen-forever-racist Lou Barletta’s attempt to make English the only available language for all public services in the town) and live with my dad’s parents for almost three months by herself while my dad finished up his Naval service in Virginia. She confronted the culture shock on both sides with a charm and resilience I don’t know I’ve got. My dad worked a seven day swing for PP&L and never missed a single little league game or after school event. He has always been there for everyone–from mowing the elderly family’s lawn down the street to helping lift my Filipino cousins out of poverty and getting them into school. They work twice as hard as anyone I know and they never complained or looked for some sort of award. I can’t even begin to catalog the amount of sacrifices my parents made for me to allow me to be who I am today. I am forever grateful for what they taught me about thinking for myself. Half the time I know they have no idea what I am doing, but that has never stopped them from being there for me.

That said. Holy shit. I’m surprised we survived the Cracker Barrel. My mom’s sense of resilience and survival instincts must have kicked in at the meal’s end–it’s the only way I can explain the fact she took ALL THE SUGAR AND CREAMER from the table, put them in a sandwich bag, and then stuffed them into her purse. My dad continued to ask if I wanted an order of chicken fried steak to go. He then continued to drum to songs so off the beat that I became concerned he might have been having a seizure.

Five minutes before asking for the check, my mom asked for a container for the meal she didn’t like. She then asked me if I wanted to take it home for later. When I told her that her Yelp-like review in real time didn’t inspire much confidence in me enjoying her leftovers she asked me when did I get picky about what I ate. I almost pulled a Danny Kaye at the table. Ten minutes later we are navigating the gift store with almost no resistance. Twelve minutes later, my parents are inviting me to go to Sears and the Home Depot with them. Before we go our separate ways, I get a quick brow beating about being single from my mom. It made me think about that poem “Oh, Mother! (after reading Leonard Cohen on the toilet)” by Jeremy Radin from his Write Bloody book Slow Dance with Sasquatch:

Oh, Mother!

If I really knew
what I was doing

I’d be telling you
about all the women

instead of telling
all the women

about you.

I so desperately want to quote it to her, but they had already pulled away. I’m pretty sure the point was and would be moot anyway. She would’ve taken it as invitation to try and set me up with one of her friend’s daughters. Which she did–once. I already had a girlfriend at the time. It was Thanksgiving.

Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He drinks his coffee black and scalding hot. Follow him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.

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