The meaning of life over the dinner table

May 15, 2013

Summer can’t get here soon enough. No alarms going off at ungodly hours. No hectoring about homework. No imposed bedtimes.

But mostly I’m looking forward to the return of “the question.”

This summer mealtime tradition was started by my son Andrew. At age 8 or 9, he had correctly figured out that during summer we spent more time around the breakfast or dinner table. Meals were often eaten on the screened-in back porch, which invited lingering conversation. Even as a young child, Andrew was never one to put up with idle chatter. Conversation, he seemed to know innately, should lead to greater understanding of people, of nature, of the world.

The first question I remember Andrew posing around a summer dinner table was, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

His father looked over Andrew’s head to mouth to me the words “should I tell him?” My head filled with a blur of memories. “Tell him WHAT?” I thought to mouth back, but before I could, Bill had launched into the time a St. Petersburg, Fla., police officer had come knocking on the door of his apartment to arrest him for unpaid parking tickets. Bill wove a tale of being taken away in a police cruiser, booked, fingerprinted and put in a cell. And, ultimately, of making a phone call to a buddy at the St. Petersburg Times to bail him out after four hours in lockup.

Our sons’ eyes grew wide as they came to see their Dudley Do-Right Dad in an exciting, nefarious light. The next day I got a call from school. The boys were spreading news about their father being a criminal. To this day, it’s one of their favorite stories about their dad.

I believe that Andrew now spends a lot of time coming up with mealtime questions for us to consider. Some are tests of memory and logic. Some invite great debate. Some are, ultimately, unanswerable. But none has ever elicited that oh-too-common kid response, “whatever.”

Among some that have carried conversations well past dessert and continued as the moon rose:

●If you could save the members of your immediate family or 10,000 strangers, what would you do?

●What’s the best movie you’ve ever seen and why?

●What makes some people cat people and others dog people?

●What’s your earliest memory?

●Who is the greatest current baseball player?

I’ve never quite understood why these conversations seem as closely tied to summer as silver queen corn from a farmstand or the flickering light of a firefly. Perhaps the things we do in the summer invite more languid contemplations. We go on vacations, we walk along the beach, we go to baseball games.

Andrew got a head start on summer recently by asking this question at a restaurant: Name your three favorite TV shows of all time.

When Christopher put “Jimmy Neutron” on his list, I had several emotions: pride that this 17-year-old had the self-confidence to name a “kiddie” show, and respect for his taste. ( The episode “Phantom of Retroland” is one of the greatest 12 minutes of animation ever.)

Summer can’t get here soon enough for me. Through Andrew’s questions — and our answers — I invariably learn a great deal about my sons and myself.

What traditions that help define summer for you? Let us know at localliving@washpost.com.

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