My husband and children hold the ritual of family dinner in high regard. The alchemy of food and sitting in a cluster yield humor, insight and love. Nothing else we do together has the same effect.
I fell in love with the ritual of family dinner senior year of high school when I moved into my Uncle Tony’s one bedroom apartment. It was a peculiar arrangement with my dad and I each occupying a twin bed while my uncle slept in the living room. The highly predictable world my uncle managed was peaceful and in high contrast to living with my mom, who was too sick to think clearly most of the time.
We became our own tiny island, adjusting without any drama that I can remember. Every item in their apartment had an immovable spot and every event happened as expected. I got to sleep under a white silk comforter decorated with gentle violets.
I got in the habit of making dinner and taught myself to cook a few things. Chicken Parmesan and a simple iceberg salad was my favorite meal to make followed by spaghetti and meatballs. My Uncle T had an enormous stove coated in white enamel. The edges and handles were softened by curves like the contours of an old Cadillac. It was a 1935 Chambers, the Bentley of stoves, but it was tough to manage. Uncle T demonstrated how to light the burners without an explosion. Everything relied on double-action metal levers that took me a while to master. For the first few months, it went like this: light a match, double shift, edge the match to the burner and brace yourself for a blast of flame.
The three of us ate dinner together most weekday nights in the dining alcove that branched off the living room. It had floral wallpaper above the chair rail and an elegant chandelier. The table was anchored by four upholstered walnut chairs. I set the table using one of two sets of place mats: the plastic rectangles with coated scenes from the Georgetown University campus, Uncle T. was a dutiful alum, or the spongy olive-green ovals that were hard to clean because they were porous. We used Vanity Fair dinner napkins, Noritake china, and fancy flat-ware at every sitting. A green porcelain bowl, sitting on silver footings, rested in the center of the table flanked by crystal candle sticks. We drank Tab and iced tea from glass tumblers etched with flying geese.
We had nice little chats about our day, and I was happy. Whenever I think about the meals we shared, I smile inside and out. Family Dinner is the centerpiece of my family now. Loving the ritual started with them.