Family Matters Most at Mealtime

Sunday, February 26, 2006

For a variety of reasons, none of them apparently being to promote the happiness of those immediately concerned, numerous organizations have put out definitions of the family. Governmental, religious and social institutions keep proposing criteria having to do with marriage and blood ties, both of which require definitions of their own. In regard to marriage, it becomes necessary to deal with those who can't get married but want to, those who can't but don't want to, and common law or civil marriages that are legally recognized in some places but not others. In regard to blood, the issue comes up of how closely the people are related.

All this has naturally led to speculation about ugly subtexts. As the definitions are usually tied in with the application of benefits, taxes and zoning, suspicions arise that the real purpose is to target such groups as immigrants, gays or sweet little old widows and widowers who want a second chance at happiness without endangering their pensions.

Meanwhile, Miss Manners has come up with her own rigid definition of family, one that ought to offend nearly everyone. Hers is so strict that it excludes many married couples living with their own minor children.

She got the idea from reading about an insidious zoning ordinance restricting the definition of family to "two or more persons related to the second degree of collateral consanguinity by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship, or otherwise duly authorized custodial relationship . . . living and cooking together in a single housekeeping unit, exclusive of not more than one additional unrelated person."

It has been noticed that this is particularly hard on recent immigrants who have welcomed relatives, including cousins, nieces and nephews, while keeping within the limits of the number of people who are legally allowed to occupy the dwelling -- only to be told that these people are not closely enough related to meet the definition of family.

But what grabbed Miss Manners' attention is the part about cooking. The same ordinance also uses the requirement of cooking together as a requirement for unrelated roommates in groups of three or fewer, and for unrelated adults and their children.

Miss Manners isn't so sure about that. Cooking together can have a damaging effect on family life if two people are trying to use the stove at the same time for different purposes, or one person fails to clean up his or her particular mess, or one person is in the habit of adding spices to the other person's pot.

But eating together, night after night, no matter who does the cooking or the carrying-in -- that is a good definition of what makes a family. A family, by Miss Manners's standards, is a group of people that takes nightly and weekend meals together. It is then and there, asking one another to pass the beans, arbitrating who gets the drumstick and pretending to be interested in each one's adventures of the day, that families are forged.

Yes, softie that she is, Miss Manners would allow some leniency to hard cases, and the occasional pass to go out. Nightshift workers would have to find another common mealtime, and a reasonable number of dinner dates with others must be permitted, especially for the young, if the family is to survive.

But allowing sports, hobbies and entertainment regularly to preempt family dinner would only show this unit is basically unrelated, blood and marriage qualifications notwithstanding.

Dear Miss Manners:

My fiancee and I are both formerly divorced and each lives alone. We are both in our mid-fifties. My fiancee's parents feel slighted because I did not ask their permission to marry their daughter. Since my intended is both divorced and a grandmother, I did not consider it an obligation to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Did I commit a faux pas?

Did you ever. You brought to these people's attention the harsh fact that their little girl is no longer subject to their rules and protection. Miss Manners advises apologizing for your oversight and presenting yourself as a suitor for the lady's hand. You might also want to check with her grandchildren, since this is apparently a touchy family.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) atMissManners@unitedmedia.comor mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2006Judith Martin

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