My parents are visiting from Colorado.   For dinner tonight, we ate a rotisserie chicken, and my Dad systematically stripped the chicken carcass of every last vestige of meat and sinew.  He used with his fingers, gouging out the secret protein tucked between the ribs or clinging to the sharp stump of neckbone.  He scraped the bones with his teeth to remove the tendons and fasciae.  He ate noisily, having reached the age where he no longer cares about niceties when eating at home.

Matthew didn’t blink an eye.  This is the same Matthew who, when we first started dating, had to look away when I ate fried chicken, as I had a habit of chewing the ligament between the drumstick and the thighbone.  When I saw him shudder, I knew that he’d heard me crunching away.

“It’s just not something I’m used to,” he said.

I have had meals with Matthew’s father, who eats quickly and voraciously (like fathers everywhere, I think).  Matthew has picked up very few of his own father’s mannerisms and habits.  Where do we learn proper table manners?  If not our parents, then who teaches us how  to hold a fork, which topics are appropriate for discussion during dinner, or how to sit up straight?

When my father spoke about the modern method of making nước mắm (caramel coloring, salt, water, mysterious chemicals), I didn’t correct his pronunciation of anchovy.  An-ko-vy, he said, and I imagined Leslie Howard, pointing his finger, saying, “No!  Do it again, again, again,” and my father, stubborn in way Matthew suggests I have inherited, refusing to say it correctly, just to spite Professor Higgins.  It’s not the child’s place to teach his parents what is proper.

Instead, my father has taught me the proper way to dismantle a lobster, how to slip a washer between the nut and oil pan when changing a car’s oil, how to tie a necktie.  Etiquette and proper manners; leave that for someone else.

After dinner, the conversation turned to the subject of living wills.  Mom told the story of an acquaintance of hers, whose mother has Alzheimer’s and a feeding tube.  The daughter, she said, quit her job and moved her mother into their house, where, everyday, she makes meals for her.  She stews and blends; she boils and strains.  And it all goes into the feeding tube.

“I think that’s cruel,” my father said.

Sometimes, my mother said, when her feeding tube clogs, the daughter will clear it by sucking the obstruction clear.  My mother made a horrified face.

“If I have to live like that,” she said, “you can just give me Ensure or something like that.”  But, I wondered, would this be cruel, as my father had said?  Whose wishes should I follow?

We sat quietly at the dinner table for a few moments, eating little squares of lemongrass chocolate.  “Let’s change the subject,” my father said.

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