"Oh, no!" my children moan. "Not frozen dinners again! "
"But it's the kind you like," I say through a feeble mock-Donna Reed smile as I peel the cardboard off the containers, revealing a conglomeration that hardly resembles the picture on the front. That's true, they concede, but not without reminding me that they've liked them twice this week already.
I meant to cook, honest I did. But by the time I got off the freeway, solved half a dozen household crises and made my way into the kitchen, even my good intentions were pleading for a reprieve. I took one look at the stove and headed for the freezer instead, reminding myself to send a thank-you note to the folks who found a way to harness the microwave.
"I'll cook tomorrow," I promise rashly. "How about fish?"
"Mo-om," says my daughter, "I hate fish."
"Can I heat this up and eat it later?" my son asks. "I was in the middle of watching something on television."
So why bother, I say to myself.
As we sit at the counter, glumly lifting forkfuls of glop from our little boxes, I try to envision what it must be like for other families. All I can come up with are black-and-white images from '50s television.
Am I a failure? If I am, do I have lots of company, at least? The next morning, I embark on some unscientific research.
"There must be some 'Father Knows Best' families out there somewhere," says Patty Cherry of Anaheim when I put the question to her. "I just don't know of any."
But it sounds like I've found a kindred spirit, at least.
"I would love to have the traditional family dinner, with everyone sitting around the table going over the events of the day. But in our house, those occasions are far too rare," says Cherry, the mother of four children ranging in age from 2 to 8. She's a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, John, has his own business.
"It should be a requirement," she says. "But I can't even manage it myself. Most of the time, between sports and choir practice and all the other activities, it's just impossible."
My sails start to slacken, however, when Cherry describes what she means by a "traditional family dinner."
She's talking about the good china. A tablecloth. Stemware, even for the youngest child. Flowers. Classical music in the background. And most important, good food, the kind Mom used to make, or in her case, the kind Mom still does make.
I see. So, um, how often do the Cherrys have that kind of dinner?
"At least once a week," she says. But the home-cooked meals, she goes on to explain, happen every night. She isn't taken aback at my amazement. "I was just talking to a single friend of mine who couldn't understand how someone could cook a full meal every night," she says.
"I'm definitely not the perfect homemaker. But I really kind of take pride in the meals. I used to hate cooking. When I was first married, I remember telling someone that if I could have (a choice between) a maid or a cook, I'd take the cook. It was so hard, always trying to figure out what to make. But now I have a cookbook collection, and I get really excited about it."
Setting an elegant table, even for a group of young children, "helps get everyone in a more relaxed mood. In fact, it takes on the atmosphere of dining in a restaurant," Cherry says. "And the children behave like they're out in public. They don't bicker."
"Never. If you set a standard, they come up to it."
Cherry even claims that she has no problem using the good dishes with the children. "The only dishes that have been broken, I think, are the ones I broke myself." In fact, she says she doesn't own a single plastic glass or dish. "And the kids love the stemware. They feel that they're really part of something special when they use it."
On less formal evenings, Cherry says, it isn't unusual for the family to eat in shifts. "Or sometimes, we'll have one in front of the TV, 3 at the counter, 1 in a high chair, and my husband in his 'command module' in front of the TV."
Where's Mom during all this?
"I'm waiting on them. Usually I eat later," she says. But even for what the kids call a "fancy dinner," Cherry says she doesn't mind waiting on the rest of the family. "I never feel like a servant to anyone," she says. "It's just something I take pride in doing."
Krista, who lives in San Clemente, has black-and-white images similar to mine floating around in her head. But in her case, they're from real life, not TV.
"When I was a child, the whole family got together at dinner and talked about the day. The TV would go off, and we'd all sit around a round table."
Her husband, Rick, has the same kind of memories. And long before their 8-month-old daughter, Natalie, was born, they had planned that their children would have such memories too.