When I was a child, you were expected to make it to dinner every night as much as possible. Sometimes, my father worked late, but mostly he was there. We had a table that was small by today’s standards, white with a gold pattern in leaves around the edge, and avocado metal legs to go with the avocado stove and fridge. We ate in the kitchen, all six of us, passing around hamburger pie and tacos and drinking Kool-Aid. Never milk, which was expensive and reserved for breakfast. My parents drank RC cola. Every so often, when my dad worked for the 7-Up bottling company, he brought home a case of NeHi flavors, cherry and grape and root beer, and us kids got to splurge.
There were four children, and we had our assigned seats so we wouldn’t fight. Everybody except me wanted to sit by my dad (he and I had a tense relationship when I was a teen and I didn’t want to attract undue attention. Often, I was on restriction because that was just the hard-headed way I rolled as a teen, and if that was true, I really didn’t want to sit with him.) I sat on my mother’s left, with my sister Merry, the left-hander, next to me. Then my dad, my brother, my sister Cathy across from me.
We were expected to talk nicely during dinner. No fighting. No squabbling or whining, though we did it sometimes anyway, of course. Even if you were in big trouble at school or at work, it wasn’t something we talked about at dinner. We were supposed to share our day, and if that was lagging, my father would boom out, “So what was the highlight of your day, Barb?” and we had to share something good.
It was corny, I thought, filled to brimming with teen ennui. But I did it. And it usually did raise the mood.
After dinner, if you were the one in trouble, you had to stay behind while my mother cleared the plates. They’d bring out ashtrays and light L&M menthol 100s and you would have to stay for A Conversation. Ugh.
But guess what I did when my children were born? Established family dinner. We had a very small, but lovely dining room in the Victorian house where they grew up, with double hung windows curtained in lace, and a sturdy wooden table I inherited from somewhere. It could be expanded to seat 12, but that only happened on Sunday mornings when my ex cooked his famous biscuits and gravy and we had people over to feast.
My kids complained, too, about the ritual of dinner, the need to be nice, the dreary ordinariness of family dinner with all of us sitting in our places, winter and summer.
It is ritual that keeps families strong. Rituals that make us feel comforted and part of something bigger. One of the most touching things that happened when my ex and I finally decided to live apart was that my youngest still wanted us to sit down for dinner, he and I. We lit candles and played music to cover up the quietness of just the two of us, and sometimes ate out more often, but now, he and his wife and his new baby girl come over for dinner with Christopher Robin and I, and we sit around the table and talk about cheerful things. Afterward, we clear away the plates and set up a board game.
Obviously, I believe in family dinners, but there are many ways to create rituals in a busy world. Does your family gather around the table for supper or breakfast? Do you have other regular rituals you enjoy together?