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Family Dinners. Since Time Began.

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BERNADETTE NOLL
Bernadette Noll
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This post is from a few years ago. Eleven, to be exact. When I had three kids, not four. Before anyone was in school, let alone a junior in high school. When I wrote this I thought it would always be like this. Like time would somehow freeze. But when I look back? I see that every single year of parenting has been different than the last. Every child has brought something new to the table. Every age has taught us new things about ourselves, our family and life in general. Here's to the constant changes. Here's to family dinners. And here's to the realization that right now is ALWAYS right now. Every single minute is the beginning of time -- to be noticed and appreciated.

The Table Dance (c. 2003)

In the beginning, it was just us at our little table in our little shack of a rental house. Side by side, we would make our feasts: chopping, slicing, sautéing. The two of us at the table sipping wine, eating our curries or fiery salsas and fantasizing about what the rest of our lives together would be. We'd linger for hours over more red wine and a few cigarettes and maybe a coffee at the end. We would eat late and long and imagine living in a big building with a big room and a big table -- where we would eat late and long all the days of our lives.

In this same house with our first baby, we still ate late into the evening, and not much changed in our ritual. Not much changed while we cooked and she snoozed in her sling. While we ate, she'd nurse, then collapse on my chest, neither of us noticing or ever minding the salsa in her hair. In those early days of babe, many things remained the same and we thought that's how it would always be, with our little carry-on-bag of a smiling, contented only baby.

As she started to crawl, we wriggled away from that hovel of a house that held such sweet emotion. We left that house of first meeting, first marrying, first baby and were off into our own first home. Our first own home that was not the enormity of our fantasies, but rather the smallness of our bankbook, that made us choose between a living room and our dreamed-of big table, and of course we chose the latter. At this big table, our meals were a little earlier and our menu a bit altered and our sentences unfinished as we split chores in different rooms and we split kids, as now there were two. You change the baby and I'll cook the dinner, you read a story and I'll set the table, you run after them and I'll run into the bathroom and take a deep breath. And then we'll all sit down together at our big table, not late or long, as the attention spans are shorter and the bedtimes never early enough.

There are no more cigarettes but still, there is red wine or a cold beer. Still, we fantasize about the future, even more so now, as we imagine not only our own lives, but our children's, too. These fantasies, though, are often interrupted by spills and crying and questions and directives: Eat your supper, get back on your chair, keep your hands to yourself, don't forget to chew, and with this last command, they are requesting (for the 100th time) the retelling of the caveat of the time as a kid I forgot to chew and I threw up whole orange slices all over the floor.

There are three kids now, and we fully surrender to the meals at 5:30 instead of 9:00 and they are in bed an hour or more before we ever would have even entertained the notion of cooking. Detailed conversations are rarely attempted, as no thought is too great to be left uninterrupted and only a rare sentence sees completion. We have ritual in the setting and the lighting of the candle and I have my own private, mindful, sanity-retaining moment of deep breathing, in through my nose and out the mouth, like childbirth and then salud, I gulp my beer.

Dinnertime is chaotic and messy and we must remember not to sweep until the rice dries. The commands are many and seemingly more all the time, and the reminders to behave and to be nice and to listen, but so, too, are the increases in conversations and the sharing and the stories of our youth or theirs -- those one or two or 30 long years ago. We exhale when all is said and done, or not (next time can we have macaroni and cheese?). With that exhale or with a lengthy discussion as to whose turn it is to blow out the flame, our dinner candle is extinguished.

Though we sometimes question our sanity at the concept of dining regularly with such ritual and with three small, sometimes frantic and frenetic children, and though we sometimes start at their getting too close to the candle or their knocking over of their cup or their falling nonsensically from their chair or their singing during our moment of silence (read: moment, not minute), it is our hope that what they will take away is the desire to one day sit and linger long and late and enjoy a meal shared with each other, with us, with friends or with mates.