Even in 1976, I had an inkling that the kitchen table was important. I didn’t have the thoughts to express it, but I knew the way a child does who returns again and again to someplace and finds her people still sitting there. Our table was oval, formica wood-grainesque with six paisley avocado chairs. Pattern was King in the mid-seventies. The wall to wall carpet under us a geometric jumble,
Our step dad worked for a linen supply company, so we had a weekly delivery of restaurant style pressed tablecloths and napkins in an assortment of colors. I didn’t know how unusual this was, fresh linens at every meal. Our mother taught us how to fold them into upright waterlilies, but they were usually smacked down in a rectangle.
I’m grateful that table manners were important to my mother. Manners are a gift. We took them for granted, and tried to give her grief, but I understand now, witnessing the lack, how manners help keep the world afloat. Besides, with three brothers to endure, some manners kept me from complete hysteria. "We ate a childhood full of meals, that we thought would never end, but they did."
a Culinary Imagination
We set the table: knives, spoons and forks, needed or not, this standard of three. They were laid out with the Bachelor fork on one side all by himself, while King knife stood by his Queen spoon over on the other side of plate. Setting the table was an important part of my budding culinary imagination; romantic and filled with possibility, rarely actualized with our Corningware dishes,
and Looney Tunes glasses collected by going to the burger joint. Seven nights a week we ate together, and here and there someone was gone, but with three boys and a girl that was fine. Dinner was at six. Dinner was at six, always dinner was at six, and it was unheard of to schedule a class or meeting during the dinner hour, it just never happened unless you were going to an event that included a dinner.
Our meals began with a blessing holding hands around the table. It was always the same prayer, and we took turns saying it, although my brothers loved to turn it into a tongue twister speed contest GodisgoodGodisgreat letusthankhimforourfood Amen. I can still say it really, really fast.
Not Just Filling the belly
We said “please pass” and asked to be excused. We put our napkins on our laps, and elbows off the table. We never slurped or burped, took turns doing the dishes and clearing up, ate our food and didn’t complain, usually. We weren’t allowed to be rude or whiny and we accepted this as the way the world turned. Phone cords didn’t reach the table, TVs weren’t on at meals, no one left before the end of
the meal, and everyone ate the same food, but that’s another story…. Does this sound abnormally idyllic? Well it wasn’t, it was just life, just life as we knew it. My friend’s houses were all variations on the same theme. Although some were strikingly different, like our neighbor Mom who put dinner out on a counter and let everyone pace around the house eating from a bowl in their hands. They were a more creative and interesting family than ours.
At our table, we bickered, laughed, sulked, joked, endlessly listened to banal adult conversations, and were occasionally sent away from the table for one infraction or another. We ate a childhood full of meals, that we thought would never end, but they did. I can’t say I’m sorry they ended, and I don’t long for them in the least. Who could long for the 1970s? I prefer interesting table conversation, my food, and the more relaxed atmosphere of now, but it set something important in place. I’m not saying there’s a right way, or place to eat.There are many ways and when I grew up, and left home I witnessed and lived lots of them-- from sitting cross legged in yurts, to rocking to and fro on a boat’s bed while eating and feeding a baby. This is just my memory of one particular flavor of table. One that as a child, gave me a sense of connection, family, ritual, rhythm, security and modeled the social life of eating and communicating with others. It’s interesting to realize how objects as simple as tables and chairs can provide such a focus for human connection. That filling the belly is only one piece, in a complex of important rituals that make our lives human, personal and wealthy.