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Eight in the evening is when we began eating our dinner every night. Coincidentally that was the same age our family, decided that dinner together was worth the flexible eating schedule. At the age of twelve, I still vividly remember waiting patiently on my barstool at the island where we sat for dinner. My mother across the kitchen frantically trying to finish dinner while simultaneously washing the dishes and counters. I never understood why she tried so hard to have the perfect home. Down the long L-shaped island is where my younger sister, nine years old and full of attitude, would sit. Sometimes we got along, but most of the time we spent waiting at the kitchen table was used to bicker. She always complained, and got everything she wanted. Everything I had she wanted, like clockwork. It used to bother me when my parents gave into her endless demands, but one thing I will never forget, something she never got. At my barstool, I used to have the best view, and I never gave that up.
From my seat I could see him coming down the street, but I still liked to pretend to act surprised when the red lights backed up the driveway every night. I would wait to hear the garage door come to life, as his truck came to a rest. I would make sure I sat still on my stool, while barely containing my excitement. I waited for him to walk through the front door. As the door slid open I would burst to life, flying from my chair. Every night, I played the same trick, pretending it would be different. Every night I beat my sister for the very first hug from dad.
Out late night dinners were the earliest time dad could make it home. Sometimes even that was too early. He worked in the same factory he had since he was eighteen. The job was grueling with the longest hours. He missed a lot. He didn’t get to see either of us off to school in the morning, or watch us run home from the bus stop. He missed all the Saturday morning soccer games, and rainy day movies, Sunday morning breakfast, and afternoon homework.
He always tried though. Sometimes he barely got through the door before he got the dreaded phone call, turning him around, heading right back to where he came from. We had to understand, his job needed him, and he needed his job. Those were the hardest days, the ones where we sat at the counter watching the clock and the door simultaneously. Our little stomachs clenching inwards with hunger, but still refusing a plate before he came back. Some nights we lost the battle and he didn’t make it, before we were shooed off to bed. We never gave up hope though, every shadow that passed across the kitchen window caught our gaze, every creak of the house had us rushing to the garage to check for his truck.
Every time he returned, after leaving abruptly, an apology followed. Even as a child I could see the guilt written across his features. He wanted to provide for his family, he gave my mother the perfect life while giving my sister and I anything we asked for. What I didn’t know was beneath all the expensive gifts, fancy clothes, and new cars we were buried. My mother racked up credit card debt, my father worked to pay it off. My mother relieved herself of her working duties, no longer contributing to the finances, my father picked up the extra bills. My mother spent endless hours draining his savings account at the casino, my father took the blame for not providing her with enough, so he worked more. He didn’t want this, he didn’t want to miss everything, my mother forced his hand behind our backs, and he blamed himself. The guilt of missing his children growing up, forced him to bury himself in work further. He couldn’t face the fact that if he didn’t, he missed everything for nothing. For a long time he believed that we held this against him, that in some way we resented him for missing our milestones.
At dinner tonight, ten years have passed but a life time has changed. We no longer sit in the house that held our memories of childhood. The house that resembled a small museum with all the meaningless rooms scattered about. Each room was decorated in custom attire, hand chosen by my mother. As spectacular as it was, that house was never meant to be a home for two children, it was much too delicate for our finger prints. I am no longer looking down the rare, handcraft, grey speckled granite island at my sister, or across the expensive, custom floored kitchen at my mother frantically working. I am no longer the little girl, shaking with excited energy, waiting for him to come home. There is no longer a masterful plot on how to deceive my sister so I can greet my father at the front door first.
Instead I focus on the wrinkles I now see shadowing my fathers eyes. His hands, covered in dirt and callouses as he passes the potatoes to my sister. I take a look around me, taking in the scenery that now surrounds us, oh how the great have fallen. The five of us are now seated on the carpet of a home we don’t own, eating our dinner off plates made out of paper, and drinking from metal that scratches your lip every time it makes contact. You could say we lost it all, but you would be wrong.
I sit in silence absorbing the family I now surround myself with. The laughter from my sister, reminds me of my appreciation for the lack of competition looming over us. I look to my best friend, without recognition he became the unintentionally added member of our family. Distracting us from the pain of watching someone we love walk away and create a brand new life for herself. He slowly became just what we needed, filling the empty chair my mother once held. I shift slightly to my right to focus on my fiancé, how he is seasoning his spaghetti sauce, completely destroying the delicate balance of noodles, tomato sauce, and small chunks of ground beef. And I smile because he reminds me how to enjoy everything. I once again focus on my dad, he smiles, he jokes, and he laughs. I can’t remember the last time I saw him so relaxed, or happy. I sit there and take it all in, I catch myself smiling at everything, but nothing in particular, while I twist my fork of food. Taking in my first bite of the noodly goodness, at eight in the evening just out of habit. I remind myself that some things never change.