Family dinner

“What did everyone do for their workout today?” was a question Dad occasionally asked at the family dinner table while the four of us – he and Mom, my brother and I – ate our bean salad or broccoli or spaghetti.

The white man knows best!

The white man knows best!

And bless my heart, I thought there was nothing strange about him asking that. You know: those precious childhood years when you think your family's normal. Isn't it normal for Dad's central preoccupation to be how much everyone exercised today and if they stretched properly before and afterwards?

Oh what's that you say, it's not normal?

But I didn't discover that until one night in high school when I had a friend over for dinner. "What did everyone do for their workout today?" Dad asked that night.

We went around the table and answered. I had gone for a run, I reported. Then Dad looked expectantly at my friend.

Who squinted and shook his head and said, "Nothing."

"Huh," Dad said. He didn't press the kid on it or anything. But you got the feeling that he hoped to hear a different answer, next time.

Posthaste my friend informed me that this was definitely not normal behavior.

And even though my usual response would have been embarrassment and this desperate wrenching desire for my family to be like everyone else's  I was a teenager, after all  on this particular occasion I didn't feel that way.

I actually liked the weirdness of it. I thought it was endearing, as if it distinguished our family as somehow especially virtuous or healthy. (Which Dad's heart attack, some years later, perhaps disproved.) But there was the way Dad listened so intently to our answers, all the while eating his bean salad and washing it down with a swallow of cold Rolling Rock beer. It was all part of our little routine, just like how he always opened that Rolling Rock bottle the same way  pulling the opener from a drawer in the kitchen island and popping off the cap and then dropping the cap into the drawer, until this drawer accumulated hundreds of caps and Dad could no longer find the opener in all the clutter. And then he'd assign to me or my brother the task of cleaning it out, which he called a “Sunday chore.”