THROUGH THE HEART Excerpt:
Timothy: The Family Dinner
My mother had no soul. That’s what I thought when I looked up from the dinner table at her.
I thought that every week when we gathered for the family din- ner, or, rather, what counted as family according to my mother.
Andrew, the next oldest after me, always greeted my mother with a peck on the cheek, saying, “Nancy and the kids send their love.” Nancy was his wife, but I very much doubted that Nancy and the kids really did send their love—because they were not invited to the family dinner. Ever.
My sister, Emily, had once tried simply showing up with hus- band number two, but my mother dealt with that situation by refusing to let anyone bring a chair for him. After standing around awkwardly for a few minutes, he left. Emily never even tried with husband number three.
I had never had a wife to be excluded and neither had my younger brother, Edward. In some ways Edward and I were alike, but he was a more extreme version—if you think I’m an asshole, you should see Edward.
Our weekly family dinner wasn’t just any dinner. To see it, you’d think we were celebrating some huge milestone like a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary or a fiftieth birthday party, but that was just the way my mother did things—perfectly. The table was set with silver and crystal and china and flowers and silver tureens. The food was prepared by a different chef every week, even though no one ever seemed to eat much.
“Tell me again, Timothy, where is the portfolio now?” my mother asked me, while carving a tiny piece of the chicken. She cut her food into pieces so small I didn’t know how she managed to chew them.
Before I could answer my mother’s question, Emily jumped in.
“Can’t we wait until after dinner to talk about this?” she whined. “Listening to Timothy talk about money makes me lose my appetite.”
“Give me a break,” I said to Emily. “Don’t bring me into it. You haven’t eaten since 1986.” That was the first time she went into the hospital for anorexia. She was twelve at the time.
“Timothy, don’t be cruel,” my mother said, but I swear she was smiling. Then she turned to Emily to explain. “Darling, we have to talk about finances. Don’t you know what’s going on in the market?” she said gently—as if my sister wouldn’t know about the financial crisis that was the front page of every newspaper in the country.
Emily was in reality probably smarter than all the rest of us combined, but my mother treated her like an idiot. And unfortunately, most of the time my sister insisted on living up to her expectations. She never had a job, and she had been married three times, once for only three hours. You are probably getting the picture: my sister was not the most stable person.
“I just don’t see why we have to talk about it while we’re eat- ing,” Emily said.
“I promise I won’t talk if I actually see you eating,” I told her.
“Mind your own goddamned business,” she said.
“Anyway, Timothy, you were saying?” my mother tuned back
to me. I managed the family’s money, and normally it was a drudgery
to report back to my mother, but I had been looking forward to this moment all week.
“We lost fifteen percent of the portfolio’s value,” I told her.
My mother practically choked on her tiny piece of chicken. It was priceless. Really. An undignified, uncontrolled reaction from my mother; it would have been worth double what we lost just to see it.
She recovered quickly, pressing her napkin to her mouth. Then she said, “Please tell me you’re joking, Timothy.”
“I wouldn’t joke about that,” I said truthfully.
I took my job seriously. I enjoyed it, and I did it well. But I knew that to be good at making money you had to be good at losing it. It was something my mother didn’t understand.
“This is not acceptable. This is not how I expect you to take care of your family. Do you want to land us in the poorhouse?”
That was one of her favorite lines: “Do you want to land us in the poorhouse?” But she was the one who was working on that destination. I knew because, managing the family money, I had a window into how much everyone spent. And my mother was frightening in her ability to spend money; that is, if anything could frighten me. If she couldn’t do it, then nothing would—that’s what I thought anyway.
I cut off a piece of the chicken on my plate and took a cautious bite. It tasted like chicken dessert. Had the chef used cinnamon? It
was probably the latest food trend. Whatever it was, it was disgusting. But it had served as the delaying tactic I wanted—making my mother wait for my answer.
“We’ve lost less than last year’s profits,” I told her.
But my mother didn’t want to hear that the situation wasn’t as dire as she was making it out to be.
“I don’t want to hear excuses. I want you to get that money back. In the meantime, the rest of you need to limit your spending. Now that we don’t have the same resources, we need to think about conserving.”
“We could cut back a lot just by scaling back the family dinners,” I suggested.
“Family time is not where you cut back,” my mother snapped.
She glared at me, but I didn’t back down. I just stared back. It was like looking straight into the Gorgon’s eyes—just in case you wonder why I’m stone.
When she turned away from me, it was clear I was done.
On weeks when the report for the portfolio was good, I had to go into the details of all the trades. Sometimes it lasted the whole dinner, talking about the money we’d made. With the bad news, she never wanted to hear the details. But even when her questions about the portfolio lasted most of dinner, I considered myself lucky. My weekly examination was only about money. The rest of the family had to endure her poking around in their private lives.
Today, after she was done with me, she raked Andrew over the coals about his boys and whether they’d gotten into what she considered the “right” private school. And in her estimation, only one was the “right” one. This was of paramount importance, even though his older boy was just going into kindergarten, and the other was barely pre-K.
After Andrew, Edward got nailed on whether he had finished
the draft of his book yet. He wanted to be the next Hemingway. He had the lifestyle and the women part down, but the writing part didn’t seem to be going as well. He’d been working on the great American novel for the last twelve years.
Emily got interrogated about how much she weighed. Today she claimed to have gained three pounds. My mother didn’t believe her. She sent Mary, the housekeeper, to get the scale from the bathroom and bring it to the dining room. Then my mother made my sister get on it. That’s when I knew my mother must really be in a bad mood. She hadn’t done that for a while.
My father was the only one who escaped questioning, but he lived with her. Who knew what happened when she got him alone? And I think there was the sense that he let her have full rein as long as she respected his boundaries. Those boundaries did not include any protection for us, his children. They never had.
As all this was going on, I tried the other things on my plate. There was some dark red whipped thing. I think it was made of beets, but I can’t be sure. The chicken was out. The only things safe to eat were three tiny fingerling potatoes and seven string beans. The way she fed us, I don’t know how my mother expected Emily to weigh anything.
The dinner went pretty much the same way dinner went every week. But what happened at the end was one of those tiny moments that seem inconsequential but that end up changing your life.
After my mother finished interrogating the others, she turned back to me. It was obvious that my report on the portfolio was still bothering her.
“Timothy,” she said, “I am going to arrange for you to see Warren. I think he might be able to give you some guidance. At the very least, maybe he can teach you to have a little more respect and concern for your position in this family.”
“Mother, I don’t think Warren is going to have the time right—”
“You’ll take the plane to Omaha tomorrow morning. I think it’s best that you be out there so you’re available when he has a moment.”
I tried again. “Mother, this might not be the best time for me to leave the office. There’s a lot going on in the market right now. I need to be here—”
“You’re going.” The way she said it I knew there was no negotiating with her.
There was only one person who could veto her.
I looked to my father. He sometimes would intercede on money issues since he was the one who had made the bulk of it—in bowling alleys and strip malls and retirement homes. He had the Midas touch when it came to money, if in nothing else.
But today was not one of the days when he was willing to step in. When I looked at him, he just shrugged. “You might as well see what Buffett has to say. It can’t hurt.”
That’s how I ended up going to Omaha first thing Monday morning.