It is very important to go home if you want your work to be whole. You don’t have to move in with your parents again and collect a weekly allowance, but you must claim where you come and look deep into it. Come to honor and embrace it, or at the least, accept it. – Natalie Goldberg
Every week night when I was a child, my family sat down at our cherry, drop-wing table and ate dinner together. Mom often cooked, but sometimes Dad did as well. I set the table every night, and my brother cleared it.
Most nights, there was some form of meat – cubed steak was my favorite – several vegetables, and bread because my dad loves bread. The salt and pepper shaker stayed on the table all the time because this space, this space was for family.
Mom and I sat on one side of the table, and Dad and J on the other. We ate with firm manners – fork in left hand, knife in right – and our elbows most definitely never touched that surface. We also were not allowed to sing, a rule Mom reminded us of by singing, “You mustn’t sing at the table, you mustn’t sing at the table” to the tune of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”
And we talked. About our days. About what we learned in school. About Dad’s teaching and Mom’s piano lessons. About what was new with the people at church and what my brother had built today in the woods around the house. About the books I was reading, but not presently because books were also not allowed at the table.
Because I am someone who processes the experience of life through words and because I was a rather bookish, smarty-pants without a great number of friends, these dinner times were the most grounding part of my day. They gave me a chance to share my classroom victories and my social pains with people who would hear them, respond kindly, and then push them off beyond the safe circle of the table. It was this dinner table, perhaps more than anything else, that told me my identity was grounded in my family and what they thought of me, not in what the wider world thought.
It was at this table where I learned I could be who I wanted to be and where I knew that no matter what I would be loved.
It is only now, as an adult, that I realize both how special these times were and how unusual a practice those meals were, even 25 years ago. It is only now that I am aware of what a blessing my parents gave us when they insisted we break bread together every night.
My parents worked hard to make home a safe and open place. They overcame much that they had built to survive their own childhoods- a wicked temper in my father, a potential for coldness in my mother – and the created a haven, a sanctuary where my brother and I could dream.
Around that cherry table, my brother learned that he could be a composer, that music was a fine major and a fine vocation. Around that cherry table, I learned that I could be a writer, that words were worth my time and my effort.
That table, those dinners, they were our future and our legacy. They were a gift strewn out in brussell sprouts and fried chicken, in laughter so raucous that it shook the table, in tears wrought from the lingering barbs of cruel words. Every night. The gift of presence. The gift of home.
What were your childhood dinners like?