When I was a kid, we had family meals every night…

Monday, May 29, 2006

As we sat around the table with Luke at the head of the table and Mark Daniel sitting next to me facing the little window, and with Holly at the foot of the table, each eating our salads while the pasta boiled in the black and white flecked porcelain covered sauce pan that Margaret bought us, Holly asked me what it was like to eat meals when I was a kid.

Well, that brought back memories.  A lot of them.  The first thing you have to know about our family meals is that I’m the third of four siblings in our family of six, so it follows that the family meals were a lively time full of stories and boys eating in such a way as to maximize individual intake. The next thing you’d need to know was I grew up in Barrow, Alaska where it was really cold and dark for most of the year and almost all of our food arrived once a  year in August when the barge came at near the end of its run, before the ice pack closed in the arctic waters for the winter.

Mom would prepare our food each night from the canned goods in the cache (a room where Jack, the eldest sibling, slept for many years until the arrival of sister Betty.  There were of course a few items that were fresh from time to time, and much of the bread we ate came from the local store. 

As I remember the typical meal, Mom would call out to the various rooms in our 800 sq foot apartment from the doorway to the kitchen, “Time for Dinner!”  She’d always yell it out loud enough for all to hear, as she was raised on a farm and can yell quite loud, in what is amazingly a sweet and lady-like way, considering the volume.  You’d think we’d all come running at that announcement, but what it really often meant was it was time to come help set the table, as dinner was almost ready.  And so we’d often not come immediately.

Dad sat at the head of the table, I sat to his right, Andy to my right, and Mom sat at the foot of the table.  To mom’s right, continuing along counter-clockwise, sat Betty, then Jack.  Any company would sit along the long edges with the kids.  Mom often would place the side dishes–the corn, bread, beans or what-have-you near her plate at one end, while dad often would have the main dish down by his plate where all the plates would be stacked up and ready to serve.  He’d serve up the main dish (Dinty-Moore  Beef stew, Eggs ala goldenrod, toads in the whole, pancakes, speghetti, or grilled cheese and tomatoe soupa re the main meals I recall), working his way down the family by age most times it seemed.  Betty would always count the ‘meats’ to makes sure she was getting her fair share, “Hey, Jack got three ‘meats’ and I only got one!  That’s not fair,” she’d call out with a sparkle in her eye as Jack would struggle to wolf down a couple to prove she was wrong before anyone could check.

One way my family meals differed from Holly’s is that we weren’t particularly finicky.  One of the main goals was to get done with a plate-load quickly to qualify for additional helpings.  Those that were unwise and ate slowly often found there were no second helpings left at the end of the meal.  Holly’s still finds this hard to fathom, as she is quite particular about what she eats even to this day, and I will still eat just about anything, especially if it’s free.

The best part about dinner was the story time, where each person got a chance to tell the family how the day had gone for them.  It is this special time of story telling that I want to have in my family as the boys grow up.  And it is here I leave you with a thought.

I read once in a magazine at an airport when Holly and I were on our first cross-country trip, back before the boys were born, that they’d finally found a very good predictor for determining how long a marriage would last.  The details are a bit sketchy now, but having a background in statistics myself, and dating a young lady with a major in psychology, I pointed the article out to Holly and we both read the article and found it quite fascinating.  The gist of the article was that if a couple was interviewed in different rooms while separated, where they couldn’t hear each other, about how the couple had met, dated, and gotten married often some amazing things were discovered.  Sometimes the stories were strikingly similar, and other times the stories were bafflingly different.  The researches found in this longitudinal study (a study done over many years with the same subjects) that those couples with similar stories of their courting and early days had long lasting marriages, while those with different views of their early times often had short fiery marriages.

In my family, as we grew up, each day we had family time around the table in which we told each other how our days had gone, and we got to stay in touch that way.  To this day, we still talk frequently on the phone and are all good friends.  I’d be willing to bet that if someone were to interview each of us about what those early years were like as a family, they’d find startlingly similar viewpoints. And I think that is one reason why my family, though we live quite distant from each other today is still quite close, emotionally.  In my view, our society is built on the family unit.  I’m not sure exactly how to say how important I think this is, but to me the family is VERY important.

Tomorrow evening, be sure to sit down with your family at dinner and tell them how your day went, and then find out how each other person’s day went.  I think that’s one of the keys to having a family that stays together.

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