Kathleen Murphy column: Staking a claim at the family dinner table
Large families are rarely gentile at the dinner table.
Last year, before quarantine was a thing in our lives, one of my children invited a friend to our family dinner night. We are a large family, with five young-adult children, but we are typically a quiet bunch, reserved and introverted. We all prefer to avoid large crowds, tend to be soft-spoken, and shy away from conflict.
All of that changes at the family dinner table.
As anyone who lives with a large family knows, the more people crammed around a dinner table, the faster the food goes. The faster the food goes, the most desperate people feel. The more desperate people feel, the more they bicker. The more they bicker, the louder they become. No matter how quiet each individual is in normal life.
There is no “normal” at a large family dinner table. Anything goes, which became painfully obvious to the afore-mentioned friend, who, I later learned — since he certainly didn’t get a word in edgewise over dinner — was an only child. Though he was not the first unprepared straggler to dine at my table, nor will he be the last, he will likely go down as the most memorable.
I spent most of dinner looking at the food in his mouth, as it dropped open every time the conversation turned even slightly heated … or someone pretended to stab a sibling with a dinner fork over the last roll … or the loud bickering suddenly turned to loud roars of laughter … or …
I think the friend’s mouth hung open the entire dinner. I’m not sure he ate any more than he got a word in edgewise. We do have a very firm “don’t stab dinner guests with a fork” rule, but he still seemed too intimidated to go in for seconds, even with my cajoling him to eat.
You see, large families are rarely gentile at the dinner table. It is a time for them to come together and speak their mind. Often, it is the only time they are all in the same room, sometimes the only time they see each other that day. In our case, it now happens only once a week. Monday nights, if you are closely related to me, your body is requested to be in a seat at the dinner table. The pandemic has made this easier to accomplish for my family. Aside from work, none of us have anywhere to be. A lone silver lining to 2020.
Monday night dinners are not the time for me to find out how their weeks have gone. Those types of conversations are filled in during other, quieter moments during the week. Rather, I listen to the re-hashing of grievances that occurred over a decade ago, opinions on the best viral trend of the week, and retellings of the same jokes that have reliably made them laugh since they were kids.
More often than not, the conversation eventually turns towards one of their standard “dinner table arguments.” One of the arguments can easily draw in guests, as most everyone has an opinion: Which Star Wars movies are “the good ones,” and which are “the bad ones”?
The second argument is about crows. I won’t share the argument here. For starters, I would need to use all of this space to adequately tell the story. Also, I don’t actually understand it. I’ve been listening in on it’s intricacies for over a decade now, but the point still escapes me. I once told a guest that as long as they were done eating, they might as well leave the table. Even if they could follow the point of the argument and were able to add any insight, they weren’t going to sway any minds. It divides my family like a political conversation divides Thanksgiving when those far-away relatives show up for dinner.
I don’t mind. It’s good to know my kids still care about the same things that moved them when they were young and the center of each others’ worlds. Monday night dinner table chaos is a glimpse into the life we used to have, when the kids were young and we all lived under one roof. Like an echo of what used to be.
One day, we won’t all be at the table together, even once a week. Someone will move out of town. Careers will take priority. A significant other will become their new world. Dinners will become more difficult to schedule. I understand that is how it has to be. The passage of time is both welcome and difficult to embrace.
So I will relish in the large family dinner chaos while I still can. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Stay safe.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.