The old dinner bell rang out through the neighborhood, calling our scattered tribe home to the brick house in the middle of the block, the house labeled “441.” Mounted on the wall at the top of the back-door steps, the black iron bell would have been rung by Mom—or whomever she’d tagged to ring it for her that day. In our suburban street full of large families and seemingly endless games of hide-and-seek and wiffle ball, in that long-ago era when we made our own playdates (although we most certainly did not call them that), most of the year we played outside after school for as long as we could, weather and school work permitting. In summer, some days we left the house after breakfast, maybe popped in for lunch or to change into or out of a bathing suit, and didn’t come home again until the dinner bell insisted we must.
Most of my siblings showed up with the first sounding of the bell. We older ones might have been finishing homework or helping with dinner, while the younger ones were corralled inside the redwood-stained fence that defined our back yard. Dennis often needed a second or third call, and sometimes someone had to be sent out looking for him. He always was the most likely to have strayed beyond earshot of the bell; also the most likely to be eating his “first dinner” in someone else’s kitchen before he slid into place on one of the long, padded picnic benches that flanked our kitchen table—the better to accommodate Mom and the seven kids (four girls, three boys). Dad and our grandfather co-anchored the table’s ends.
If someone showed up with their after-school shirt worn inside out, it meant she or he had gotten 100 on a test.
If a brother got up to get a second glass of milk (or more likely, a towel for the one he’d just knocked over) or otherwise found an excuse to walk around the table while we ate, a sister almost certainly got goosed along the way, causing at least a shriek and a vertical lift off her seat, and often a ripple effect all along the crowded bench.
If a brother timed a punchline or a jab just so, another brother might be made to exhale milk and maybe even a few fragments of partially masticated dinner through his nose.
If someone had a friend join us for dinner—which happened often enough—we all squished in a little closer, with those at the ends of the bench at serious risk of losing their perches.
Occasionally, someone did slip off an end and land on the floor. Sometimes, it was an accident.
There was plenty of chattering—although not maybe as much as you would expect, at least while we ate our “firsts.” We all knew that if you wanted seconds, especially on mashed potatoes, you had to clean your plate quickly and reach for the bowl before others beat you to it. The conversation always picked up once the serving bowls were empty.
At least until dessert was served, and “firsts” began all over again.
We never called dinner time “happy hour.” No adult beverages were involved, although my parents might occasionally each sip a small glass of wine before dinner, after Dad got home from work and while Mom was cooking.
But oh, those dinnertime hours were some of the happiest happy hours I have lived through on this planet—despite (and also because of) sibling shenanigans, parental warnings, grandfatherly glares, buckets of spilled milk, enough mashed potatoes that everyone almost always had enough, and a never-ending cacophony of sneezes, burps and giggles, occasionally interrupted by the phone or the doorbell.
Over time, of course, one by one we moved away from every-night meals at that kitchen table, a table that to the best of my recollection was only ever replaced one time in the 55 years we called that house home.
At some point during the nest-emptying years (which, it should be noted, began almost four decades ago), in honor of our street address—that magical number we’ve all come to love—we started calling ourselves “Club 441.” We even had a flag made with that name, to hang from the front porch flagpole on days when we gathered there.
When my parents moved last year to an apartment in a senior community, the (second) old kitchen table moved into my niece Samantha’s first post-college apartment. In theory, we could all still gather around it—but we’d have to eat in shifts, since there are now more than 30 of us, including a fledgling second-generation of in-laws and one great-grandchild.
My telephone beckons, its little blue light flashing at me, the gentle ring tone called “harp glissando” letting me know a text message has been delivered.
If it happens at the right time of day, it puts me in mind of the old dinner bell, and it makes me hope one of my siblings is on the other end of that little blue blinkety-blink.
As often as not, one of them is. At first. Then two or three or four or six more of them chime in. And in no time at all a virtual meeting of Club 441 is underway.
Maybe I’m already in my kitchen making dinner. Maybe I’m on the train coming home from the city. Or maybe, like that one Friday last August, I’m at a writing conference, literally heading for a scheduled happy hour, when my purse starts buzzing.
Dennis: Happy hour in Hampton Roads, visitors welcome. [Plus photo of deck chairs and the bay outside his door, framed by an oh-so-blue sky]
Brian: Now you tell me! [Hampton Roads is a 5-hour drive from where he is, having spent the day shuttling Mom and Dad to medical appointments]
Angie: Looks lovely! Happy hour in Ocean City, NJ. [Plus photo of empty beach, with countless footprints in the sand, as if everyone has just scurried off to a nearby bar]
Pete: Happy Hour in Empty Nest, PA. [Plus photo of back patio with four empty chairs, since he’s just dropped his youngest off at college for her first semester]
Amy: [Photo from her back deck in Northern Virginia of a large glass with a straw stuck into what looks to be a substantial margarita]
Me: Happy hour in Lancaster, PA, with about 200 writers and a mashed potato bar. Pete, Jim says “Hi.” [Plus photo of the buffet line and countless options for tarting up a dollop of my favorite food]
Dennis: Ahh—a literary smorgasbord.
Me: Nothing like a mashed potato martini…stirred, not shaken…to start the weekend.
Pete: I heard Flaubert only eats the French fries.
Pete: And Joe Conrad hoards the pierogis.
Dennis: Minus the ocean, it looks a little dry.
Brian: Mom and Dad both sound asleep. [Snoring emoji]
Jen: You probably could use a nap now too!
Me: Happy hour at Mom and Dad’s?
Brian: [Selfie with a summer ale]
Pete: I’ll have what he’s having.
That may be the only time one of our texting sessions really was about happy hour.
More likely, one of us has just heard a song on the radio that sets off a chain of memories and messages. Or perhaps one of my amazing nieces or nephews has just done some new marvelous (or marvelously funny) thing. Or (less often) a Philadelphia sports team is having a particularly good day.
Or maybe—and this happens more often that you might think—someone just noticed the time on their watch (or clock, or phone) at exactly 4:41 p.m., and that’s all it took to reel us all in to a dinnertime conversation.
We’re scattered up and down the East Coast now. We see each other and our parents often, but mostly in twos and threes and fours, almost never all at once. Dinnertimes that include all seven of us are rare—if we’re lucky, they happen a few times a year.
And yet, without ever talking about it, we’ve fallen into a pattern of texting our way through the early evening, at what is generally considered the time for happy hour.
These days, if anyone has his or her shirt on inside out, I can’t tell. And it’s a relief to know a brother can’t goose me through my phone. But we’ve always been able to make each other laugh, and sometimes a thread of text messages is so funny that somebody who reads one at the wrong moment just might snort a little milk (or wine, or beer, or even dinner) through his or her nose.
After all, it’s 4:41 somewhere.
About the Author: Eileen Cunniffe writes mostly nonfiction and often explores identity and experience through the lenses of travel, family and work. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including Superstition Review, Bluestem Magazine and The RavensPerch. Occasionally, her stories present themselves as prose poems. Three of Eileen’s essays have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emrys Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Three of her essays have been included in anthologies. Read more here.