Our family has eaten dinner in front of the television set for the past two years. Strangely, we are all comforted by that, and to propose that we do otherwise would cause a major upheaval in our house. Aside from the 45 minutes to an hour or so that we spend together watching a show and eating, each of the four of us pretty much revolve in our own little universe, behind closed doors.
My 9 year-old daughter is working her way through the entire Harry Potter series and is addicted to educational computer games, Disney preteen sitcoms where everybody is sarcastic and rude to each other, and collecting Pokemon on her DS. My 13 year-old son received a space-ship-like computer for his birthday last year (not from us—from a way-too-generous family friend), and we have hardly seen him since. My husband spends his days and nights doing temp work from his computer in what used to be the formal living room/music room but has now become his office. I spend most of my life on the third floor, in my attic office, writing, reading or playing with my mini-recording studio. Okay, I smoke up here, too. Shut up.
My husband and I take turns cooking dinner (lately, my daughter has been helping out in the cooking department, as well, having received several kids’ cookbooks for her birthday last year). When dinner is almost ready, we scream upstairs for the family to come down, and we set placemats on the coffee table and two TV trays placed in front of the easy chairs bookending the sofa. We scream a few more times until everyone is finally in one place, then we serve the food and commence to argue about what to watch. Sometimes, this argument lasts until we have all finished eating, and we clear the plates and send the kids back upstairs to wash, brush their teeth, or finish their homework.
We frequently binge-watch an entire series over a month or two. I was introduced to and followed the saga of the various Dr. Who’s throughout the entirety of last year before we moved on to Sherlock. When we watch movies, it often takes us a week or so to get through them, bite by bite. On the weekends, we will watch a film straight through, but during the week, we’re bound by school schedules and bedtime routines, so continuity is compromised.
Speaking during a program is discouraged, but my kids and husband are incapable of not speaking for more than a few minutes at a time, so we always have the mute button close at hand, so as not to miss any dialogue. Sometimes we have to rewind and watch a scene several times because of random interruptions by one or more of the four of us. When this happens, we scowl at one another and sigh loudly. Dinner conversation is limited to what we can fit in during commercials or pauses.
I am aware that this sounds sad and dysfunctional. But it is what comforts us.
There was a time when we indulged in sit-down meals at the table, like the Waltons. When the kids were little, we’d snap them into their booster chairs, cut their food, dab the sides of each little messy mouth with a napkin and giggle over the cute things they did and said. They loved our company then and even had fun teasing and playing with each other. I felt a swell of pride every time I put steaming platters of freshly cooked vegetables and meatloaf or home-cooked gumbo on the table in front of my family. This was me being a mom—a real mom. It was a role I embraced with the pleasure of a child playing dress up. My mother had never cooked (she wasn’t allowed–it was the 60’s). Sit-down meals were TV dinners in foil packages with peel-back tops. TV trays were metal things that pinched your fingers when you put them in the corner.
None of that nonsense for my family. Look how far I’ve come, I’d think, on my own, without anyone showing me how. My family is sitting at a table eating food I cooked for them.
We have a formal dining room with a massive Oak, claw-footed table which we pile with mail, backpacks, books, packages, and other debris. Twice a year—at Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Day eve, we scrape the table’s contents into cardboard boxes, clean the oak with a sponge and a dry rag, then adorn it with one of two thrift-shop lace tablecloths, a centerpiece candle, and mostly matching, shiny flatware. We dig out the mismatched gravy boats, salt and pepper shakers, and as many unchipped China plates as we can find in our kitchen cabinets, and we sit down over a turkey or ham dinner, like civilized people. The kids hate this and are antsy and uncomfortable with no safe place to put their elbows and nothing civil to say to one another.
We have a long pine farm table in the kitchen, and this is where we eat together on the rare occasions the cable is out or we have a sleepover guest. The kids eat breakfast at this table when they make it down in time and aren’t about to miss the bus. On weekends, this is where we eat soup or drink hot chocolate with marshmallows after coming inside and kicking off our snow boots.
The rest of the time, the table is empty.