Once what times we had in the great days of the family meal!
In the house I grew up in, we talked so much at the table it was a wonder anybody got any food down at all. Weeknight meals, Sunday dinners, holiday feasts: each took a full hour as we kids sat and listened to our five (count ‘em) grownups hold forth.
On and on our grandfather would go: about President Wilson’s and the League of Nations, about the assassination of President McKinley, about Lindbergh’s flight talking of these events as if they had happened just yesterday. (We all know about the Lindbergh flight but how many little kids learned know about the two French aviators how went down trying to match Lindy’s triumph?) And these meals took an hour ONLY IF our grandfather didn’t then decide we should get down on our knees and recite the Rosary, right there at the table, each of us crouching with heads bent and forearms resting on the the seats of our chairs.
We moved from that happy house when I was nine but I can still see the shadowy old dining room with its oak paneling and its heavy velvet drapes that separated it from the front parlor. Our grownups drew them when the nights were cold and an East wind off the Atlantic rattled those big front window. To my sister and me they were like the curtains at a theatre and the room itself was like a stage set, where any dramatic thing might happen -even beyond the falling-to-our-knees part after the meal.
Forty years before at that table, our pretty aunt Grace was only eight, her elders stifled laughter as she read aloud her book report in those same French aviators who, poor things, had gas for 40 hours.
I knew that story and I wanted to make my older people laugh too, so in the show-off-y way of the family baby, I stood up next to my chair and did imitations of a girdle ad showing how little constrained this one housewife felt by what was basically a straitjacket without the arms.
I also did the prologue to the old Superman show at warp speed, which turns out to be the only way you CAN do it; “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane it’s SUPerman!” it began. I can recite the whole thing to this day. And I killed ‘em in that house off Blue Hill Ave.
But most dramatic time came when our tiny great aunt, was born a scant year after Lincoln’ death, fell sound asleep during dinner and fell right over onto the rug. Didn’t she jump right up though, dust herself off and scoot back to the pantry to fetch the pie she had baked.From the apples she had peeled. And quartered.And even picked herself.
I see her now in her baggy dress and her little blue Keds and her falling-down hose that wound like the red banner on a barbershop pole around her skinny legs.
I see her and I miss her.
I guess thought my sister and I could stay forever at that family table and be looking at those same dear faces, but no. The faces are different now if no less dear. And the times are different too, God knows God knows.
I hope that you all find a table to gather round this weekend, as you eat, and laugh and tell stories. Let’s all send up a prayer too, even if we’re not kneeling by our chairs when we do it.