The other evening, after sorting some mail and opening a couple of packages that had arrived, I needed to clear off my counters so I could make dinner. I scooped up the mess and moved it all to the most logical place: the dining table. Ah, yes, that horizontal surface that serves as a landing platform for a myriad of things that need a temporary home until our energy and desire prompts us to find more permanent item storage. Or, until we need to use that surface for something else like school craft projects, home repairs, wrapping gifts, or cooling baked goods. Oh, yeah, and once in a while, for dining.
Clearly times have changed since large families gathered for daily, or regular, formal dinners in the Dining Room. For those of us who are fans of Downton Abbey, we can’t wait for the movie to come out so we can enjoy great scenes like watching the family dynamics around a ginormous and lavishly laid out dinner table, with diners dressing for dinner and waitstaff serving food and beverage. These days, most families eat in shifts, dishing up their own food, hopefully pausing to sit together around a small kitchen table or in front of the tv. Some don’t even have dining rooms. And we are lucky if we can get all family members to abide by simple rules like no hats, please wear shirts, and put your phones down.
I remember in my youth, the dining table was used for guests, parties and holidays. Living in an old farm house with a big family, our kitchen table was a big wood round behemoth that allowed for fairly large gatherings. But any time mom and dad decided we needed to kick it up a notch, we moved into the dining room. Candles came out, fancier serving ware was used, and Mom and Dad ALWAYS sat at the heads of the table. We had our prescribed places, a carry-over from the more formal seating layouts of my grandparent’s day: guest of honor to Dad’s right, the rest of us alternating boy-girl and by age. There was a swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room, allowing for the mess of the kitchen to be blocked out.
In our house today, 90% of meals are eaten at our kitchen table, which has space for four people, with possibly a fifth wedged in on the corner. There may or may not be placemats, there is likely a variety of styles of silverware, hopefully napkins available in the holder in the center, and depending on the meal, we could be eating off of paper, plastic, or china plates. You can’t beat the convenience of being 3 steps away from the fridge and 6 steps from the stove and oven. Which is good because if we have all four seats taken, that means there is likely not enough room on the table for serving dishes, so I serve up the food from the stove and countertops. The TV is usually on.
Pretty much the only time we eat in the dining room is if we have more than four or five of us. That table comfortably seats six, with space to wedge in up to 8. For big crowds, we use the kitchen table for overflow. Remember eating at the kid’s table? Same concept. I enjoy using the dining table for what it was originally designed. It means that we have guests visiting — friends, extended family, or co-workers. Conversations are animated and interactive because the TV is in the other room. People tend to linger a bit longer after the meal is through, not because the chairs are comfy (they aren’t, really), but because we are all facing each other, having conversations, have space to breathe, and the dirty dishes and mess can be moved into the kitchen and ignored a bit longer.
Between those events, however, the dining table acts a bit like the Island of Bizarre Collections. At this very moment, in place of a lovely table cloth and pretty place settings, the table is home for some extra bowls and Tupperware, a clock in need of hanging, a décor craft waiting to be completed, manuals and mechanical parts for my husband’s business, an empty hummingbird feeder, cleaning supplies and a box of Ziploc bags (I don’t know why). On the chairs, rather than guests, are coats that were left there rather than hung in the closet and work bags left in the seats.
This weekend when I go into white tornado mode and clean the house, I will dutifully clear the decks and find the top of that table. I may even spruce it up with a vase of flowers. It will only be a matter of time before it is covered again. Which is just as well, because soon it will be void of diners for another reason: good weather. When we aren’t eating at the kitchen table, we will likely be out on the patio or pool side.
Yes, times have changed, but I’m not sad about the shift. Because even if our fancy dinners are at a minimum, that table holds nearly 20 years of memories including Easter egg coloring with the kids, a platform for the tripod to take family photos, a place to pile Christmas gifts after opening, a surface to hold the cage of a hamster or fish in need of babysitting, a serving area for party foods, the creation of elementary and middle school project posters and sculptures, jewelry exchanges between girlfriends, repairs of jukebox pinbanks, holiday cookie platter organizing, hours of board and card games, business discussions and plans, the work-from-home command center – and best of all, laughter, tears and stories shared at gatherings.
If that table could talk, the tales it could tell would rival anything juicy shared at a Downton dinner.