I consider dinner time the quintessential metaphor for family life. We are our dinner times. Each family reveals itself by how it gathers around the table, where everyone sits, what is said, who serves, who speaks, how people listen, whether they linger and how they each feel when it is over.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Family Politics (McGraw-Hill, 1983)
Many of us might be nervous if we invited Pogrebin to a family dinner. However we may agree with her on the importance of the family meal, we're apt to feel -- with increasingly hectic schedules -- the occasion of the family mealtime slipping away.
Most parents admit they have to work hard at carrying on or improving the mealtime traditions they had as children; others lament that children's impeccable table manners and arresting conversations went out with oil tablecloths.
The first, most formidable task is getting the family together at the same time. With more mothers working, longer commutes and children involved in everything from soccer to ballet, there's always the temptation to eat in shifts or rely on fast food.
But once a definite, viable dinner time is established, at least the opportunity for intimacy is provided, say those families clinging hard to the tradition. What each family does with that time is as varied as their food preferences.
Hugh Foster, a World Bank executive, considers the evening meal with his wife Cecily and their five children "so paramount" that he usually eats his lunch at his desk so he can leave in time to make it home for dinner at 6.
In the Fosters' Cleveland Park home, their large dining-room table is surrounded permanently by seven chairs that are shuffled nightly.
"We rotate positions," says Foster, who as an only child ate "every night in coat and tie with his parents. "The prime spot is on their mother's right; the baby is always on her left."
Rotation apparently works best for the Fosters: The children, whose ages range from 3 to 14, take turns at dinner chores; everyone takes a turn at grace, with the family seated and holding hands in a circle; and the children volunteer for who gets to start and finish the lively dinner-time "conversation circle."
Unlike the scene from the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen," in which father Clifton Webb allowed each child one minute to speak his piece at dinner, each Foster child -- and their parents -- gets considerably more than that. "It's a great way of communicating," says Foster, "and it gives each child a moment on center stage, which is most important."
Before you scoff at this seemingly idyllic scene, be assured the Foster children "do fight," and one child "invariably interrupts the circle of conversation." Indeed, one of their dogs routinely retreats upstairs because she "can't take the commotion."
But to Hugh and Cecily Foster, both 41, who have raised their children in four different countries with inconvenient dinner and work hours, this time together is "something we are proud of."
Dorothy DeFrancia of Great Falls, Va., admits that it is not always easy, but she insists -- and for the most part succeeds -- in getting her four teen-agers to sit down together at 7 p.m. Since she and her husband separated, DeFrancia, 39, says she is even more determined to keep the family unit together, with a regular dinner hour as an important symbol.
"Naturally there's fighting," she says, "the oldest picking on the youngest and my constant battle over table manners. But my children get along because they are friends . . . and they are funny. Sometimes when they tell jokes or describe things that are happening at school, we break up in uncontrollable laughter. It's a good feeling."
In the Foster, DeFrancia and other households, the dinner rule holds: no television and no taking phone calls. A Bethesda mother says she thinks her children enjoy telling their friends who call, " 'I can't talk now, we're eating' . . . it gives them a sense of propriety and control over their social life."
Some parents admit that in their eagerness to hang on to the traditions of their childhoods, they have to make efforts not to perpetuate the "sexism" taught unwittingly at their mother's tables: asking the girls, for example, not the boys, to set the table; assuming the boys, not the girls, need to "wash up before dinner"; seating the oldest boy at the head of the table in the father's absence; asking daughters to cook when the mother can't make it home in time.
The dinnertime bugaboo in Barbara Ryan's life in Gaithersburg is getting her two children, 13 and 9, "to linger at the table."
"I grew up in an intact family where my father was a school teacher who walked in the door every night at 6:10 and we ate at 6:15. We always sat and talked politics. We had no choice; we had to sit. I want my family to do the same.
"I often think about this drive I have to eat together," says Ryan, 42, who always eats with her children when her husband, real estate broker Terry Ryan, 44, has to work late.
"I don't know if it's part of nurturing, or is it simply wanting to share the food together, or just needing a specific time with them? But I do know it's hard to maintain."
When children are of high-chair age, as most parents know, the mealtime task is primarily getting them -- and yourself -- fed before all the food lands on the floor. The true challenge comes later, when children are old enough to look up from their plates and express a point of view, or at least say how their day went.
In Family Politics, Pogrebin advises parents against asking the classic, "What did you do today?" unless they "have the time and patience to listen to the answer." When a child answers "in detail with a play-by-play account of his/her ball game," the parent who "tunes out," she writes, is at risk for later "picking out details" when they really want them.
Pogrebin reminds us that "children are especially expert at parrying unwanted questions with evasive grunts and wisecracks; they refuse to be cross-examined -- and they're right. There is no shortcut to family intimacy . . . it requires retention of family history and remembering from one day to the next what the child has told us, rather than starting from scratch with 'What did you do today?' "
The ideal intimacy during the week's evening hours, says Pogrebin, "comes from studying our children at mealtimes and taking seismic readings of their physical and emotional well-being according to the way they look, sound, sit, speak, pick at their food or avoid our eyes."
Besides dessert, there are clever ways of keeping children at the table. COMSAT vice president Stephen Day, for example, pulls out his expertise and interests and quizzes his two boys, 11 and 9, with such stumpers as "name 10 butterflies," "8 viruses" or "12 spiders."
British-born Day, of Northwest Washington, says the game has been moving into high gear for the past three years, with the boys wanting harder questions and delighting in giving their father such difficult penalty questions as, "name 40 butterflies."
"I've been doing this ever since the boys could speak," says Day, 40, who also enjoys setting up topics on politics, "kings and queens," mythology and philosophy. "Invariably, this leads to other things that are happening in their daily lives," so the Day dinner hour is a true hour, sometimes more.
When I grew up, the Sunday meal was a major roast beef/china/candlelight production bringing seven scrubbed children together with our father, who for the rest of the week either was away on business or, unfortunately, couldn't handle the weekday meals in the kitchen. By the middle of Sunday's meal, anyone old enough to cut their own meat was inevitably in a heated argument with my father over religion, politics or "our heritage."
Even though these debates were tense -- they bothered my mother, who preferred peace and decreed we were never to talk at the table about "distasteful things, such as 'bathroom talk' or rats and mice" -- we learned to convince a tough audience and to define the difference between a Republican and a Democrat.
A more subtle influence was the orchestration of the meal: who set the table, lit the candles, or got the dreaded "junior chair."
When I asked my younger sister what she remembers most about our family mealtimes, she didn't hesitate.
"I loved the Sundays we ate dinner at 1 in the afternoon, so later in the evening we had roast beef sandwiches which we were allowed to take into the living room to watch 'Victory at Sea.' "
"Television!" I shriek. I had forgotten.
"Dad considered it a history lesson," points out Mary. "And do you remember where you sat at the Sunday meal?"
"Of course," I announce proudly, "at Dad's left."
"That's right," says Mary. "And I sat on Dad's right."
The pie ce de re'sistance of all this family politicking was, of course, Thanksgiving, when the house filled with relatives and the dining-room table flowed into the living room with card table extensions. Preparing and sharing a stuffed turkey somehow precluded all extended family tensions by peacefully bringing together my Norwegian Lutheran grandparents, my Catholic spinster aunt and an ecumenical assortment of other aunts, uncles, cousins.
After years of confusion over the Thanksgiving grace -- if it should be the Catholic or Lutheran version -- my mother made the genius suggestion that we sing "The Doxology." Not only was it acceptable to both faiths represented, it appealed to the pomp and circumstance in us all as we stood behind our chairs and belted out, Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise Him all creatures here below . . .
I remember thinking how beautifully we could all sing and how much I enjoyed watching my quiet grandfather sing with such passion. Then especially, there was a sense of pride in the family meal.