A memoir of a dinner-table lesson in excelsis.
Regular family dinners in my childhood home were the training ground for displaying our good manners at the Thanksgiving marathon. And Thanksgiving trained us for the even fancier dinner events in our then-far-flung futures that would lead to us four kids “marrying up.”
Both my parents came from relatively humble origins. They bonded, in part, over mutual ambitions to rise in the world, or at least to have us do so. As it turns out, they were completely right that the dinner table is the place to establish the social skills critical to success.
The great Yale Psychologist James Comer says, “It is not the test scores that allow you to be successful in life; it’s the social skills you learn at the dinner table. You come on time; you listen; you don’t talk for too long; you learn to debate; you learn personal control.”
During our dinners my parents irritated us with nagging lessons on manners – elbows off the table; eat with mouths closed – and prying questions about how our days had been.
As an adult who ponders kids and education, I consider the whole package – sit-down dinners, probing questions and instructions in manners – to be best practices that all children desperately need.
But despite my parents’ best efforts, meals were quick, time-at-the-trough affairs. In theory we sat patiently until everyone was finished. In truth, my folks often buckled under the intense pressure to excuse us to wash our dishes and be gone.
Not so on Thanksgiving. All children, except babies, were expected to stay at the table for the long haul. The dinner itself took a seemingly interminable amount of time.
Thanksgiving was a mandatory sit-down event for at least 30 people. To supplement my mother’s large dining room table, my father arranged plywood sheets over the breakfast table and a couple of card tables. Two thick layers of table cloths masked the second big table’s makeshift nature.
To help us tolerate the endless meal, my mother taught us her favorite past-time, “people watching.” We were to turn the critical eye back on others and consider for ourselves what was and was not good behavior. It taught manners in reverse, getting us to scan the landscape for oafish acts. We gleefully shared our observations during the gossipy post-mortem that followed all family events.
As the eldest, I worked with my father mapping out the massive seating plan. That privilege came with the chore of setting the table – knifes turned cutting-side in – and making the place-cards.
My siblings coveted this power because dull seating partners could make the long sit outright painful. The rule was that everyone got a “good one and a bad one.” My job was to represent the interests of the kids, so we weren’t stuck entertaining the people my parents didn’t like. Particularly to be avoided were Aunt Jean and Uncle Zebulun, no relation to each other.
Poor Aunt Jean, the childless sister of my mother’s brother-in-law, was a breath-taking bore. Her dissertations about some humorless but cautionary point turned her listeners to stone. She never asked questions or allowed your desperation to interrupt her.
Uncle Zeb was different. Belonging to my grandparents’ generation, he was hard of hearing. Talking with him meant talking so loudly the entire party heard every lame word of your end of the conversation. We were supposed to greet everyone, so there was no avoiding Zeb. But he was death as a dinner companion.
Later, when we’d become young adults, one of my sisters brought a Boyfriend who was a sports fanatic. Over drinks before dinner, the Boyfriend made a scene with his genuine thrill to meet, in the flesh, the minor baseball star, Zebulun Terry. Zeb was a baseball player? The Boyfriend’s garrulous, arrogant personality didn’t give a fig what anyone thought of his booming, appreciation of the wizened old man.
My dad and I gave each other the eye. We quickly ran back to adjust the seating to put him with the Boyfriend. That Thanksgiving and for another two or three hence, we had Zeb solved. We were fawningly grateful to the Boyfriend, whom we liked anyway because he was funny. He dismissed us as clods who were blind to our very own rock star.
But most impressive was watching Zeb come to life. He was still sharp and a witty guy in his own right. In the warmth of appreciative attention, this social non-entity became a player – laughing, swapping stories and winning disputes. The loud, public aspect of their lively conversation attracted others to join. Zeb’s wife of a billion years, Aunt Lucille, got teary watching him hold court.
I was quite chagrined. A truly cool guy had been trapped in deafness that we hadn’t penetrated because of our challenged egos. God knows what I would have talked with him about – certainly not baseball. But clearly I’d been far more worried about looking cool, or in this case sounding clever, than I was about a man who was always left out. My take-away was that I’d gotten too caught up in surface appearances and was not, in fact, gracious, giving and well-mannered. The foundation of truly elegant deportment is paying good attention to others.
And that was a dinner-table lesson in excelsis.
I wonder what would have worked with Aunt Jean. At least she was always included – in the true spirit of Thanksgiving.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.