Dining with the Deweys could be a contact sport

Dining with the Deweys could be a contact sport

My third-grade teacher was a caring woman, dedicated to her vocation and determined to make a difference in the world.

She once told my mother, in one of those parent-teacher conferences that were in vogue in the early Sixties, that I had academic potential and that a bright future awaited me.

“‘Michael has a mind with wings,’” Mom quoted her as saying at the kitchen table that evening. “Isn’t that something?”

To which my brother, two years younger and too cynical by half, quipped, “Guess that makes him a bird brain.”

Ah, yes.

The Dewey Dining Experience.

If you were invited to share a meal in our home, you were wise to come prepared for verbal combat, linguistic warfare and competitive banter that was, at its heart, hostile and often hurtful.

Years and years later, for example, my brother bragged that his girlfriend – who would one day become his wife – could recite all 72 books of the Bible.

“Impressive,” my father said, nodding at the nervous girl.

“Wow,” I said, flashing an Eddie Haskell smile. “Please do it.”

Of course, she faltered. Anyone would’ve. Making your Dewey Dining debut was difficult enough without having to perform on cue like a circus monkey for a table of ill-tempered critics.

We were not the most accommodating bunch in the world, I’ll grant you, but neither were we all that bad. We just liked games.

I think it might have started innocently enough with Christmas cards. Leave it to us to turn a wholesome holiday tradition into a blood sport, one played nightly after comfort-food meals of Johnny Marzetti, minute steaks and BB shots and, on Fridays, tuna boats.

Back then, the Catholic Church was a lot more stringent when it came to days of fast and abstinence.

Fridays meant no meat.


I was never sure the genesis of the prohibition was, but I presumed it was punitive, because that’s what parochialism was all about.

You may not have known what you did wrong but you were surely going to pay a steep price for your transgression. It was dogma we learned early on – Original Sin – and it dwarfed everything else.

No one, aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born without it. That’s why babies had to be baptized quickly, so as to remove its stain, but that wasn’t enough. All your life, you had to confess your sins regularly, telling the priest all your dirty secrets.

This bothered me.

A lot.

But because I was still living at home and it would have broken Mom’s heart had I shunned the confessional, I went through the motions. Let history record, though, that the last time I participated in that ritual was during my first week at college.

Yep, I lost the faith at Notre Dame. Ironic, isn’t it?

There, at arguably the preeminent Catholic university in America, we were challenged to question everything about our faith, from the underpinnings of the Old Testament – suffering in the face of endless persecution – to the Book of Revelations.

No one was overtly trying to suborn heresy; on the contrary, theological inquiry was considered an invaluable tool in the construction of an adult outlook, one anchored in discovery.

And then there were the girls.

Women had been introduced into the student body the year before I arrived for my freshman year which meant that for the first time since its founding in 1842, Notre Dame had changed … radically.

Oh, it was quite a time to be a student out there on the northern Indiana prairie, what with protests – blood-red “CIA Off Campus!" graffiti greeted us one morning, the sidewalks ablaze with anger – and the gradual absorption of the fairer sex, not to mention the big game with top-ranked Southern Cal coming up on Saturday.

By the time I was a junior and against all odds, I found myself with a girlfriend, someone who would in the months ahead, alternately make my life meaningful before rendering it meaningless.

In between, however, she sent me a Christmas card which arrived at my family’s home just after I got there for winter break. As such, it went into the gaily beribboned basket at the foot of the stairs and joined its brethren in our nightly quiz.

Yes, faithful readers, we even turned Christmas cards into a game.

Mom and Dad had scores of friends and their seasonal greetings provided fodder for a memory competition. It was classic fun.

In order to win, you had to identify – by looking at the frontices only – who had sent the card. Get 10 in a row and the basket was passed to you so that you could be the quiz master for the others.

This required considerable study since, on average, a dozen new arrivals would be included every night. Some of us – OK, it was me – even took to hiding a few under the davenport so that no one saw them before they were flashed, ensuring a failed turn.

I pulled that trick with the card my girlfriend had sent but the result wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned.

“‘Joyeux Noel, my love,’” my mother read upon opening it, her eyes misting as she read the note. “Isn’t that beautiful?”

“What?” my brother said in his cynical way. “She’s from France?”

Even I had to laugh at that.

That, after all, was the key to surviving the Dewey Dining Experience. It was either get into the spirit of barbs, slings and arrows flung in your direction or skulk away in shame and failure.

We made games of everything, including something called “Santa Claus packed his sleigh,” a particularly diabolical memory challenge in which that phrase preceded the addition of a new item, then another and another, as each member of the family had to repeat them in order to stay viable.

It wasn’t unusual for the list to reach 50, which taxed all players.

But for those who stayed with it and saw that dining with the Deweys meant more than an entree and a dessert, the experience was satisfying in more ways than any meal ought to have been.

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