In the movie Moonstruck, lead character Loretta Castorini tells her father she has news. He rises from his armchair and says "Let's go into the kitchen." In my large Italian family, many of life's most important moments and decisions were announced, celebrated or talked over around the kitchen table. Good news or bad, from engagements to pregnancies, troubles or victories, the kitchen table brought us together. It was there that my mother spent countless hours listening to the hopes, dreams and troubles of her five children. It was also there that a generation before, my Grandma Anna listened to the problems of women from the neighborhood while she gave them advice, and freshly baked cake.
Some of my most cherished memories from childhood are of women gathering around the kitchen table, sometimes three or four generations together, preparing the meal of the day, peeling apples, snipping green beans or kneading bread dough. There they talked, shared and connected. These women were strong, resourceful, and nurturing. They had seen nearly a century of life, survived the Great Depression, two World Wars, Vietnam, and everything in between. It was because of their vision, courage, sacrifice and very hard work that we came to sit at that table together. They provided roots, wisdom, and security, and I still look to each one of them and their examples for guidance. Many are only with me now in spirit, but they are ever as present through their gifts and lessons. Even as I write now, a treasured photo watches over me.
One very typical weeknight a couple years ago, I stepped off the train from Manhattan well after 7 o'clock and arrived home to the usual scene: messy house, hungry children, homework and not a minute to spare to get the evening routine underway. While preparing dinner, I grabbed a fistful of fresh green beans and put them over the cutting board, ready to cut the ends in one massive, indiscriminate, loveless chop. I stopped in my tracks. I thought about my mother, and those women snipping green beans, and the time and care I watched them put into cooking our meals every night. And I thought about how that time and care, as much as the food itself, fed my soul and my memories. I looked at the stark contrast to the chaotic scene in my kitchen (and in my life) and wondered what legacy I was creating for my daughter? Would the memory of me chopping wildly and barking out orders give her comfort, warmth or strength when I was gone? I thought certainly not. If it is true that we cannot give to our children what we do not have ourselves, I was in trouble.
Studies from around the world are showing that women are experiencing increasingly high levels of chronic and unresolved stress. We also now know and accept that women respond to and dissipate stress differently than men. Under stress, women become more empathetic and are more likely to seek nurture and connection with others. So maybe there is something more to the kitchen table than meets the eye. Maybe it is more than precious memories of a time gone by. Maybe we can learn a lesson from our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers about the art of gathering in community and connection, of openly sharing problems and finding solutions, that is so important for us to thrive.
Today's society would have us feel we are alone in our struggles, that while others seem to have it all together, we are missing something. But here is the not-so-secret truth, those women you are looking at everyday on the train, on line at Starbucks, and in your office and thinking they have it all figured out? They are struggling too. They do not have it all together, they are probably trying to hold it all together just like you. What a gift you could give each other if instead of upholding the illusions, you opened up about your difficulties, bring it out into the open, share, connect and bond. In your personal or work life, could you create a lunch group or find a walking buddy with whom you can talk about common interests, share solutions or support one another? What wonderful things might come of it? How might your life change for the better? What if you got home earlier so you and your daughter could sit together at the kitchen table to prepare dinner and talk over the day?
In a graduation address I recently heard, the message was refreshingly clear. The pressures to achieve material and outward success will come at you from everywhere, and the world will not be generous in leaving you the time to connect with family and friends, to serve others, to fulfill your life in the most important ways. Setting those boundaries and creating that space comes down to you. So if I want my daughter to know about the amazing lineage of women and the deep well of strength that she is connected to, I need to model that for her by keeping it alive in me, and by reflecting it in how I live. It is my turn to dispense love, wisdom, and cake, at the kitchen table, and I am ready. Are you?
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