In my last post Ghosts of Christmas Past: My Dad had Foibles, I may have made my dad sound strict or harsh. In fact he was neither. I really don’t remember him losing his temper or being anything but kind. Some people who worked for him told mum they were scared of him. When she repeated this to my brother and me we fell about laughing. Who could possibly be scared of our dad? Later in life, Dad could certainly show his displeasure when he was unhappy with the service he received – most often justifiably so.
An example of his even-tempered qualities is this story of tomato sauce (ketchup) and Sunday dinner. As I noted previously, Dad liked us to dress properly for this weekly meal. I remember he had on his smartly ironed, snowy white shirt (as white as an egret’s plumage), and his old school tie. My brother (Mugwump) and I sat across the table from Dad, and Mum sat to our right, at the end of the table. From here she served the meals from a two level trolley that she would bump into the dining room from the kitchen.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner that day, but it was something that we enjoyed with tomato sauce. We used Heinz Tomato Sauce. It came in a nice bottle with a screw-on top. Heinz tomato sauce was very thick in those days and needed a really good shaking to get it mixed enough to pour ever so slowly from the bottle. We learned the trick of tapping the side of the neck rather than smacking its bottom to get the sauce moving.
I don’t know what it is about tomato sauce bottles, but you really need to give it your own shake. You just can’t trust the person who used it before you to get it just right.
Mugwump was always faster than me at meal-times. So he had taken the tomato sauce and shaken it and poured some, ever-so-slowly, onto his plate. He returned the bottle to the middle of the table.
I hadn’t paid much attention to his technique; picking up the bottle I gave it a really good shake. Have you ever experienced an accident happening in slow motion? My next 20 seconds seemed to last for minutes.
I shook the bottle hard, the top was facing towards my father. Mugwump had not tightened the top! The top came off and did some lovely pirouettes as it flew over the pristine tablecloth towards my father. It struck him in the chest. It was followed by a Red Army of tomato sauce – in tightly spaced globules, like tracer bullets. I watched helpless with my mouth dropping open, as this red line arced across the divide between me and my astonished father. Splat, splat, splat – the red globules burst on his shirt front like machine gun bullets in a gangster movie. some reddened the tablecloth, the others went splat up the front of his shirt and three red splotches decorated his face, on went the red brigade, passed my dad, and up the wallpapered wall behind him.
There is a beautiful line in the Bible which says that Elijah found God “in the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). I remember there being absolute silence following my saucy attack upon my father.
Then Mugwump laughed. I started to blame the mess on him – he should have fastened the top properly. Mugwump sent the blame right back – “you should have made sure it was on properly before shaking the bottle”. Dad quietly took his napkin and removed as much of the sauce as possible. Mum went and got something to clean the marks off the wallpaper. The it started, with a few giggles, these turned into louder guffaws, a few snorts and then outright laughter. All four of us, as I remember, were laughing very hard. It may have been Mum who started it…
This is still a vivid childhood memory. I was just so shocked at what I had done. But it is also a fond memory of family time. There were no repercussions.
Yesterday Susan and I were talking about metaphors. About how some people seem able to provide metaphors or similes to help bring a point to life, or give it added emphasis.
I had been thinking of writing about the tomato sauce incident as a follow-up to my last post, when it occurred to me that the tomato sauce or ketchup bottle top is a metaphor for me of those common courtesies which are being left behind; no longer expected or valued. I’m thinking about things like holding open the door for the person coming after you; letting another go in first; offering a seat to an older person or pregnant woman; standing when someone new enters the room or joins a table.
When I am finished with the tomato sauce bottle, I should be expected to fasten the lid – or pass it to someone else with the lid removed. When I pass through a door (e.g. in a shopping mall) I should look behind me to make sure I don’t let it swing shut in someone’s face. I should be aware that there are other people around me and not go about as if I am alone in the universe – or worse, just not care how my actions may inconvenience or even harm another. I should thank the person who does any of this for me. I should acknowledge each courtesy or kindness offered. I should treat others the way I would like them to treat me (now that does sound familiar).
So, I laugh at the memory of the tomato sauce incident, but grieve the memories of lost times when common courtesies were – well common!