I grew up the oldest of six children—six loud, opinionated, expressive, wonderful children. Dinner time was the worst, or the best depending how much you like noise. Our family of eight gathered for dinner every night. An event that has now become so rare in our country that dining room tables are featured in museums beside telegraphs, washboards, and phones with cords.
So how did we accomplish this seemingly impossible event? Dinner time was anywhere from 5:00 to 10:00 P.M. We sat down whenever Dad was home. He usually could stay anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes – depending on his two jobs and church meetings. This was our only chance to see him each day and we made the most of it.
Our family blessed our food before eating. The prayer ended with the word “Amen” which was a code word meaning, “On your mark, get set, go!” Once the prayer ended each child simultaneously reached for what they wanted. This proved frustrating for the younger children whose arms couldn't stretch very far, so they would get out of their chairs and walk over and grab what food they wanted out of the hands of the older ones.
Once plates had ample food, the contest began. These are the rules of the contest: tell the funniest joke, if you can’t tell a funny joke – tell a loud one. Whoever can make Dad laugh, wins.
Fifteen minutes later our plates were empty, bellies were full, and dinner was over. Dad would rush out the door while we loaded the dishwasher and cleaned up. We then went our separate ways or to bed depending on the hour. We had had family time – ultra-concentrated.
Entering my young adult years was a time of discovery. I learned new and surprising things about life, including table manners. I thought everyone finished their soup by drinking out of the bowl. And did you know it’s rude to talk with food in your mouth? I thought it was multi-tasking. Fortunately I used my time in college to refine my dining skills and could actually eat comfortably in a restaurant. But nothing could have prepared me for my first meal with my future husband’s family.
After dating for a short while, a certain Englishman decided it was time to introduce me to his parents. They were eager to meet me and invited us to their home for dinner. His mother was making homemade chicken noodle soup.
As we entered their home I was struck that something was missing. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I later realized it was noise.
As we sat down to our bowls of soup, the blessing was offered. After “Amen” I reached for my spoon to start eating. I look around. No one is eating. They were all placing their napkins on their laps. I thought that was just for restaurants, people do that in their own homes?
Once our laps are properly attired it was finally time to eat. I took great care to eat slowly and not slurp.
“Saltplease,” someone says.
Saltplease? What does that mean? The person sitting next to me picks up the salt and hands it to the person who had said that strange word. Oh, he was asking for the salt. In my home we don’t ask for anything. If we did, it would get used by every person at the table before reaching the requester. It was much more efficient to just walk over and grab it.
After a few minutes of eating, the questions began.
“Heather, where are you from?”
Silence. I waited for someone to tell me a funny story they heard about New Mexico. Nothing. Everyone kept eating.
“Butterplease.” Someone wanted the butter.
“What are you studying in college?”
“Molecular biology,” I say.
Silence. Oh come on, no jokes about genes, DNA or chromosomes? I’ve got a million of them, you can’t think of one? Nothing. Everyone kept eating.
Pretty soon I hear a strange clicking sound. Click-click. Click-click. I can’t figure out what it is. Click-click. Click-click. It’s me. My spoon is clicking. I look down and see that my soup is almost gone. Each time I try to get another spoonful, my spoon hits the bottom of the bowl. In my own home, I would have started drinking long before this.
Soon I hear click-click-click-click-click. Everyone’s spoons are now clicking their bowls. Click-click-click-click-click. Will someone please pick up their bowl and drink the rest of their broth? Who can eat with all this noise?