Doug is working late tonight, giving a presentation and tech-tool demo at some Seattle geek fest, which means I am home alone with four kids at the dinner hour.
This shouldn’t faze me. I mean, I manage to get dinner on the table five nights a week without Doug being home to help me. He usually shows up just in time to help me round up kids and wash their hands and cajole Jane into finishing her table setting.
And that’s precisely what I need tonight—someone to help me with those last few things before we can eat.
Only Doug’s not coming home yet.
Dinner is nearly ready, but the table is only half-set. “Jane, honey,” I call from the kitchen to the living room where she’s making a Duplo castle. “We still need plates and water on the table, sweetheart.” I say it sweetly. I don’t yell. This is a growing edge for me. “Would you please come finish your job?”
She collapses into a heap on the floor and moans, “I don’t want to.”
I force myself to smile. “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to. I asked you if you would.”
She staggers to her feet and drags herself through the dining room to the kitchen. She stands next to me and stares up at the dishes on the shelf. “I can’t reach the glasses!” she whines.
I can feel my frustration mounting. I take a breath as I drain the pasta pot. “I’m going to let you figure that one out.” My voice is only a little brusque.
She sighs dramatically, then turns on her heel and skulks out of the kitchen to get a chair from the dining table, which she then drags back to the kitchen counter.
I try to ignore her as I read the end of the recipe for the tenth, or maybe it’s the twelfth, time. Lemon juice, butter, sauce, shrimp, parsley, salt to taste. Got it.
Jack races through the kitchen holding an imaginary bow and shooting an imaginary arrow at an imaginary enemy. “That’s 40!” he shouts as he blasts past me.
“Jack!” I say, loudly, because he’s in another world, one where people do not stand over hot stoves trying to get dinner on the table but live on game and wild mushrooms, which they cook over an open fire. Unless they’re fighting off orcs.
“Jack!” I say again, louder.
I smile, but it’s totally forced, a grotesque mockery of a smile. “No running in the house.”
“Sorry, Mama.” He looses another arrow.
I say, “Would you wash Luke’s hands, please, while I finish this?” I look at the recipe again. Lemon juice. Check. Butter. Check. Sauce. I pour this over the pasta.
“Lu-uke!” Jack shouts as he runs past me into the living room. “Time to wash hands!”
Didn’t I just say something about not running in the house? Or was I only imagining those words? I look back at the cookbook. Where was I again? Oh, right. Shrimp. I empty the bowl of shrimp on top of the pasta.
Jane is standing at the kitchen sink, holding a glass under the faucet. She bounces up and down on her toes and whines, “I can’t reach it to turn it on, Mama!”
I just stare at her for a moment, then turn back to the cookbook. “Mama!” she wails. “I can’t reach the faucet!”
Parsley. I need parsley. I open the refrigerator and wrench a handful of parsley off the bunch that’s sitting at the top of the crisper drawer. With my biggest knife, I chop it into tiny little shreds of green.
Jane starts fake-sobbing. “I—can’t—reach—the—faucet!”
I whirl around. “Are you kidding me?” I shout. “There’s a perfectly easy solution to that problem! There’s absolutely no reason to cry about it!” I realize I am still holding the knife in my hand, stabbing the air with it while I bark at my daughter. Oh. Lord.
I turn my back on Jane and rather vigorously scrape the parsley off the cutting board into the pasta pot and stir everything together. “Dinner!” I call in a falsely cheery voice as I carry the pot to the table.
“Mama!” Jack shouts from the bathroom. “Luke’s poopy! He stinks like a hippopotamus!”
I look up at the ceiling. I close my eyes. I wish I could say I’m praying. I’m not. I’m feeling bitter. I put the pot on the trivet on the table and go to the bathroom to change Luke. “Jack, could you wash Ben’s hands and get him in his seat, please? You can use the kitchen sink.”
Jack hops out of the bathroom. I pick Luke up, lie him on the changing pad, and start to change one of the grossest diapers ever. How do such cute babies manage to make such hideous poops?
Ben is screeching in protest; he doesn’t want Jack to wash his hands. Jack is screaming back, “I have to, Ben! Mama said!” Jane is yelling, too, because Jack is usurping her place at the kitchen sink.
“Jack! Jane!” I yell through the bathroom doorway. “Shut! UP!”
Jack calls back, “What, Mama?”
I roll my eyes. “Be quiet!” I shout through gritted teeth, but I don’t think they can hear me for all the noise they’re making.
By the time I finish changing Luke and wash both my hands and his, Jack has gotten Ben strapped into his chair. Ben is not happy about it. He screeches and kicks and hits the table. “It’s okay, Ben,” I say as I strap Luke into his high chair. “It’s okay. I know you’re upset. We’re going to pray. Then we’ll eat, okay?”
Apparently, that’s not okay. Ben picks up his fork and throws it.
“That’s it! I’ve had it!” I grab the back of Ben’s chair and drag it, and him in it, to his bedroom. Then I slam the door shut and storm back to the table. Luke, Jack, and Jane are all staring at me.
I pick up the match box and pull out a match, but I don’t strike it. I can’t light the candle and say “Bless the Lord” when I’ve just slammed a door and have spent the last five minutes yelling at my kids. I close my eyes and breathe the Jesus Prayer in and out a couple of times. When I’m calm and can speak truly, I pray out loud, “Lord Jesus, please forgive me. I’m so sorry I yelled at these precious people you’ve entrusted to me.” I take another deep breath.
Then I open my eyes and look at each of my children in turn. “I’m sorry, Jack. I’m sorry, Jane. I’m sorry, Luke. I’m sorry I’ve been so grumpy. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“It’s okay, Mama,” Jack says. “We’re sorry, too. We weren’t obeying you.”
Jane nods. “I forgive you, Mama. I’m sorry I fussed.”
Luke is completely oblivious to my apology. He’s too busy eating the pasta that is somehow in his bowl.
I wish that I didn’t have growing edges, that I never raised my voice with my kids, that I was endlessly patient and kind and soft-spoken. But if I have to be a little rough and raggedy in places, and it seems I do, I’m awfully glad to be able to grow with these precious people God has entrusted to me. They’re full of love and forgiveness and grace. And I’m so grateful.
I smile at Jack and Jane. Then I strike the match and hold it to the candle. The wick flares. “Bless the Lord!”
Jack and Jane chorus, “The Lord’s name be praised!”
“You think Ben is ready to come out?” I ask. “You think he’s ready to pray with us?”
They both nod. I go to the bedroom and give Ben a hug. “I’m sorry I slammed the door on you, Benito.” He wraps his little arms around my neck. Then I push his chair back to the dining room. We pray, and I serve up the pasta.
“Highlight, lowlight!” Jane says. “I’ll start.”
And so dinner begins, with praise and prayer and the examen. The road to get here was a bit rough, but by the time we finish sharing our highlights and lowlights, we’re laughing together, eating together, enjoying each other again, and the roughness of the road has been forgiven and forgotten.
If you’d like to initiate your own mealtime candle-lighting ritual, here’s a free download to get you started: these short litanies that we use at the beginning of our family meal each day change with the seasons of the church year.