Growing up, dinner time was a time of togetherness. During the days of landlines, one of us would pick up the phone, take note of the caller, and politely tell them so-and-so would call them back, but I’m sorry, we’re having dinner right now. There was no background TV. There was only family and guests and the conversation between our weirdly specific, self-assigned seats.
Family dinner was a safe space as well as a lecture hall. It was the time us kids would ask for things, “Can I spend the night at Jenny’s this weekend?” or break bad news to our parents, “You know that really expensive glass thing?” It was also the time our parents would confront us with bad grades or the various infractions they’d discovered, or gods forbid – a phone call from the school!
We caught up on each other’s day: my father always telling his first, then mom. The kids would offer up whatever they deemed to be a valuable reflection of the school system (not much, let’s be honest). Mostly we chatted quietly, sometimes not at all, and ate around a single table.
As children, we valued this time and recognized it as special. I remember talking with my brother after school, and we resolved to ask mom and dad “at dinner.” We both understood what dinnertime was for, and gave the space appropriate reverence.
Family Dinner became increasingly important growing up, because our dad would leave for weeks at a time for assignments out of town. He was always being sent away “for school,” as the air force updated programs or education requirements, etc. There once was a gaping hole at the table for months on end as dad was stationed in Sudi Arabia to fight someone else’s war. A completed circle, even around a square table, carried a heavy meaning.
During college, my friends would politely laugh at me, as I called our evening meals together “family dinner.” I texted everyone the time/place on campus religiously. I would organize a table for those who could come, and we’d air out the day’s stresses, have philosophical debates, rehears future endeavors, all sorts of stuff. It was a thankless task, but it meant so much to me that I never minded coordinating the lot of us. The herd thinned out as the years rolled on, but that was expected.
Only in the twilight of Senior year did Ian take me aside and thank me for all those Family Dinners. In that moment, I knew I’d had a positive impact on those people, even if our friendships didn’t last more than a semester (or had messy endings. I’m a drama queen, let’s be honest). But I knew it had been important to them, just as it was to me, even if for slightly different reasons.
For the next several years, I had dinner alone in my livingroom. Eating at the coffee table with the TV flashing is a poor substitute for genuine company, let me tell you. But we make do with what we have.
Now I’m back home, just minutes away from my family! Every Thursday night, we have family dinner at my parents’ house, the family steadily growing in number.
As adults, Family Dinner has morphed into a sort of sacred space. There is still no TV and no cell phones are allowed. We all still have our weirdly specific, self-assigned seats. Some assignments have changed to accommodate fiancées and children, but we stick to a general seating chart. It’s funny and comforting at the same time, knowing where each of us will be. Family Dinner is once again a time to catch up, laugh, and see the kids.
Missing a family dinner, especially for the sake of work, takes a great mental/emotional toll on me. Immediately, I feel guilty for choosing work over my family, but the guilt exponentially increases when missing Family Dinner – our one, weekly ritual, where everyone’s present. I would liken it to Sunday Service. Now, I can’t completely understand the compelling nature to sit in a pew just to hear a lecture one can’t participate in, but people describe a sense of “fellowship” and “warmth” that I would put head to head (toe to toe?) with Family Dinner. It soothes the soul.
Yes, we’re still in a pandemic. Perhaps I should feel guilty every week that we continue to meet up. Perhaps I should be a better person and advise the family that dinner should stop until we’re out of the weeds. But I don’t. Because I don’t feel guilty. Because Family Dinner is the one thing in this whole pandemic (indeed my entire life right now) that I look forward to. Family Dinner keeps me sane. To push the envelope of melodrama, it’s single-handedly keeping me alive. So no, I will not apologize for Family Dinners and I will not stop going to Family Dinners despite the pandemic.
To be clear: I take precautions – I limit my exposure to strangers (only going to work on the days that I have to, making quick Kroger runs for food, and I may visit Iza at a coffee shop, but that is it!), I also wash my hands and face before going over for dinner, in clean clothes not worn outside my apartment, and we only hug away from each other, and no kisses. This will be the only time I defend Family Dinners or feel the need to explain myself.