Every evening about 5:30, we would hear Mom call to us, “Okay girls, time to set the table.” And so we would go downstairs, get the napkins, silverware, and plates and prepare the table for dinner. Then we would put ice in the glasses and pour the tea. I was always hungry by that time because Mom was an amazing cook and the scents of dinner would waft through the house for quite some time before the actual meal. The food wasn’t fancy or expensive, just good.
Then Dad would come in from outdoors, wash up, and we would sit down to eat in the manner that some restaurants call family style. For a few minutes, the only sounds would be of serving bowls being passed and food put on plates. The unspoken rule was to take what you would eat and not waste food. During the meal, if we wanted something, not within our reach, we would say, “Please pass the …” This sounds so simple, but I later realized how important those skills and lessons were to being comfortable in a mealtime setting.
During the meal, the conversation would flow as we each told about our days interposed with other snippets of conversation. Mom and Dad, strong environmentalists would talk about local environmental issues and other subjects that they had read or heard from the news. But beyond that, what I remember most was the laughter. Dad loved puns. Loved them. So whenever he could, he’d throw one into the conversation. Mom would pretend to be disgusted, and my siblings and I would laugh – probably whether or not we “got” it, because Dad was so smart and so well versed in literature and current events that his puns sometimes went right over our heads.
He loved to combine a pun opportunity with Shakespeare. A bee in the house led to “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Trying to recall a new acquaintance’s name became, “What’s in a name?” And he didn’t stop there; he could recite entire soliloquies.
We were a family of six, but often, very often there were eight, nine or ten people around the table since friends were always welcome. Whoever was there was treated as part of the family and got to join in the fun. Guests who were able to match wits with my family were always appreciated.
Looking back, I thought that was the way all families were. I didn’t know that some families had no regular meal times or that meals were spent in front of the television. I certainly didn’t know that not all dads could recite Shakespeare. In our household, dinnertime was almost sacred. Woe be to someone who called on the telephone during dinner! Dinner was not just food; it was part of our family’s dynamics. Our parents used the opportunity to make sure that they connected with us on a daily basis, and often as an opportunity to teach us something if only the art of conversation or good table manners.
When we became parents, my husband and I continued the tradition of family dinnertime. Each meal began with the “How was your day?” question to each child and the conversation proceeded from there. If the phone would ring during that time, I’d complain, just like my dad did, about people calling during the dinner hour, to which my children would inform me that we were the ONLY old-fashioned family that had a dinner hour! That may have been true, but if so, how very sad. It’s not always easy; soccer, football, cheerleading, band, chorus, drama…our kids are engaged in many activities, but many things that are worthwhile take an extra effort. It’s worth it. The rewards will far outweigh the challenge. We must make time to have real conversations with our children. We must make time to ensure that they know that we, their parents, are interested in their lives. We must be sure that they are comfortable with social graces such as dining and conversational skills. What better way to let them know that they are loved? What better way to show them that they are important and what they have to say is important? What better time than the family meal time at the end of the day? Now that our children are all grown and have moved away, I miss that camaraderie but cherish the times when they come home and the tradition continues.