I can still picture our family of six sitting down to dinner in that white shingled farmhouse an hour north of New York City. We kids pulled rickety wooden chairs up to a round kitchen table covered with a red checkered oilcloth. Mom always placed a vase filled with spring daffodils or summer daisies from her garden in the center.
Dinner was at 6 sharp and we learned early on never to be late. We were reminded of that daily by the two-foot-long wooden paddle hanging on the wall near the stove. Just looking at the paddle put the fear of God into me, not to mention Dad’s anger if any one of us was tardy. To this day I’m a fussbudget about being prompt.
My sister, two brothers and I elbowed and nudged each other constantly during dinner, competing for Mom or Dad’s attention. “I got an A on my science test!” vied with “Hey, that’s not fair, she got a bigger piece of cake.” When we got too loud, Dad would simply look at us and say, “Pipe down.” We did. And then we cleaned our plates.
We all had chores throughout the week, including dish duty. At night, my sister and I would stand at the white porcelain sink to wash and dry. The next night my brothers had the honors.
With four rambunctious kids and a husband just starting his political career, Mom had to be penny-wise right down to the worn soles of her black and white Spectators. We lived and ate simply in those post-World War II years. Lots of spaghetti and meatball dinners, occasionally chip beef on toast, but my favorite was Mom’s roast chicken — and not just for the tasty dark meat.
After devouring the chicken, she would pick the wishbone from the meaty remains, prop it on the windowsill above the stove, and let it dry for a few days. When she pronounced it “ready,” two of us got to pull it apart, hoping to snag the larger piece. “That’s good luck,” she assured us.
Being the youngest, I can barely remember the times I was able to shove aside my bigger, tougher, more determined siblings so I could win a leg of the wishbone and pray for a Toni doll with nylon hair that I could shampoo and set in curlers!
Mom has been gone now for 23 years. Yet I still hear her voice in my ear, reminding me to be humble, more patient, and to care for those who have less than I do. Despite a searing wit that could eviscerate anyone who she thought did her kids wrong, she constantly prodded us to work harder, do better, and “stand up straight.”
Without fail, I still save the wishbone after a roast chicken dinner. It’s a touchstone to simpler times now gone, and an icon of a mother who taught me the unselfishness of love. Maybe I got the larger piece after all.