My mom was big on table manners and proper eating habits. She also was slightly obsessive about cleanliness. I don’t know how she survived our toddler years.
When I was a baby, Mom would put food on my high chair, turn around to prepare something on the stove, and when she’d turn back, the high chair would be completely clear of food and I would be be smiling and eagerly asking for seconds. I left no mess behind because every particle of food was gobbled up (I was a total chubster).
My sister, on the other hand, would take a few bites, and when she deemed she had eaten enough, hurl her plate over the side of the high chair and watch the food fly. My cousin, my sister’s partner in crime, would dump his plate upside down on his head, with spaghetti strings hanging in his eyes and tomato sauce dripping down his cheeks. My mom started laying down a giant plastic tarp on the floor when those two were dining together.
As we got older, I continued to dutifully respect my mother’s table etiquette, using my utensils, taking small bites, and chewing with my mouth closed. My sister did not feel the same motivation. My mom and I would bark at her, berate her for what we deemed her nasty eating habits. We even went so far as to hoist a makeup mirror from the bathroom on the dining room table in front of my sister’s face so she could watch herself eat. Our assumption was that she’d be horrified and change her wicked ways. She used the mirror to gleefully smack away with mouth wide open, savoring every mouthful with messy glee. I would groan in disgust and admonish her. I would tell her she was gross and embarrassing. The poor girl was probably only six or seven years old, and I was chastising her for licking her fingers and talking with food in her mouth. Why the hell did I care so much? Who did I think I was, Emily Post?
Now, I watch my daughter finger paint on the wall next to her high chair with greek yogurt, singing and chanting, “Mommy, MESS!” I feel the corners of my mouth turn down and the “Noooo!” rise in my throat. My fingers itch to grab a sponge and immediately clean the wall, the high chair, and her. As she upends her plate of food all over her chest and merrily laughs, every fiber of my being wants to grab the plate from her and scold her. So I breathe. And I take a second glance at her shining face, full of freedom and curiosity. And I laugh and say, “that’s right, you adorable little monster. MESS!”
Table manners can wait a bit longer.