05/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Stephanie Gertler Author: Jimmy's Girl, The Puzzle Bark Tree, Drifting, The Windmill

I eat corn on the cob with a fork, a remnant from my childhood, where chomping down on corn from the cob was forbidden. I'm not sure: was it considered "gauche" or did the chomping frazzle my father's nerves? There were other edicts of etiquette: no bare feet, and no jars, cans or bottles on the dinner table. Condiments were served in small bowls with small spoons. Paper napkins were used only in lunch boxes, and we poured ice water into glasses from a pitcher in the table's center. Pun intended: It was no picnic. A friend who grew up in a working class town said the same rules prevailed in his childhood home, so perhaps this etiquette was endemic to an era and not to Manhattan's "elite." Although my friend ate corn directly from the cob, he recalls the church clothes his parents wore: his father's sober suit and tie, his mother's ensemble accented with short white gloves, and her demure pursed lips. Sunday personas antithetical to those exhibited during the week when sanctity didn't prevail at home. My childhood didn't surprise him.

This said, on Sunday evening when my husband and I dropped in on my parents during the dinner hour, mild shock rippled through my body when I saw their take-out meal spread unceremoniously in portable foil containers on the dining table. My father wore a robe and slippers, and my mother wore her velour "running" suit as she sat in her wheelchair being fed by the care giver. Although I've become more accustomed to my parents' more casual demeanor, where was the father who wore gray flannel trousers and French cuff shirts fastened with golden links even at breakfast? The woman in sheer black stockings and heels? But it was the foil containers that ignited the depths of my amygdala, firing neurons that made me want to cry out. Where were the pretensions of my youth? Where were Emily Post's rules of etiquette which, if ignored or defied, led to my "excusal" from the table? It was all I could do not to rummage through the now unfamiliar cabinets in search of a china bowl and serving spoons. Was my mother looking at me as I perceived? Pleading as she gripped my hand so that my fingers whitened? She was the one who once created the elegance and the sensibility. Was she embarrassed someplace in her post-stroke mind?

This is my brain on overtime.

My sister, Bobbi, lived in Paris for 22 years until three years ago when she moved back to New York after meeting her American husband Edward. For two decades, we saw each other infrequently, and had a relationship that swung the emotional pendulum wildly, not balancing. It is only in the last few years that we have re-connected not merely as sisters, but as women and the best of friends. It's new terrain for us, and oddly normal if normal exists altogether. Just as strangely, we've discovered that our habits, styles, and sensibilities remain uncannily alike despite lives spent at a significant distance.

Last summer, Mark and I spent weekends at Bobbi and Edward's farm in upstate New York. Bobbi and I were a study in nature versus nurture with more than a hint of Pavlov in the mix. She and I set the dinner table, silently in tandem -- taking mustard, ketchup, sauces and placing them in small white bowls...setting the outdoor table with ceramic dishes and cloth napkins. Edward grilled hot dogs and burgers and we four sat outside under the stars with our dogs. When one of our husbands placed a bottle of barbecue sauce directly on the table, we nearly had a forehead collision as we jumped across the table to grab the aberrant bottle, gasping, "I'll get a bowl!"

It was a telling moment.

On Monday afternoon at 4 o'clock, Bobbi and I met at neighborhood restaurant. We were the only ones there except for two women lingering over a business lunch. We sat at the bar. Our meeting had a purpose: our endless discussions of pragmatic issues regarding our parents' care. As we drank our glasses of wine, I told her about Sunday night. She grasped my arm as I mentioned the "tins."

"Oh, no," she said, sotto voce, as one does upon hearing of tragedy.

Something so innocent and benign as the containers placed on that dinner table is a powerful metaphor for us. It is a significant change that didn't come deliberately; sensibilities from an era now forgotten. Unimportant in the scheme of things, yet poignant for us.

Sunday's visit was a test in moving on, a test of my own will, letting old habits die hard as I left the table "as is," repressing the involuntary responses ingrained more deeply in me than I knew.
I now have a new affect: When my husband and I order in Chinese food, I no longer transfer the food from the plastic containers to bowls, and set the dining table. We eat at the coffee table in the living room, covered with containers, and except for an aversion to paper napkins and papers that I still can't get past, we dive into lo mein and moo shu pork. Usually we have left overs, but none are from my childhood.