At our house, when I was a kid, meals were important events treated with respect. The food was set out on the long table in the dining room, two chairs connected by planks on each side, a chair or two at each end, the highchair for the littlest baby against one wall and more often than not another baby perched on a couple of old Sears Roebuck catalogs and tied onto a kitchen chair.
A little while before the food was set out and the babies were attached the clean-up call for supper went out. First, whoever happened to be doing mechanic work under the elm tree in the front yard was notified. Then the yard kids were called in, then the bigger kids and whoever was company, whoever had done the cooking sat down, and then Mother, after a couple of screeches out the back door for any straggler who might still be out in the woods or down at the crick, would put out the cat and take her place at the end of the table.
At that point an almost spiritual hush of communion would fall upon us. It generally lasted about four seconds before the bowls and platters began to pass around the table. and we were once again overtaken by our natural human frailties and familial frictions. It seemed that we could not make it through a meal without somebody bawling, fainting, fighting or puking.
My oldest sister would be in tears over one thing or another, generally a boy. This would set at least one of the babies off and the contagion would spread. My brother, the middle one, would be trying very hard above the uproar to clue us in on his latest opinions regarding the morality of capitalism, gesturing wildly with a tarnished fork in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. All too often he successfully suckered some stranger, (some body's company) into a loud nearly violent political or ideological discussion. More often than not he managed to insult and otherwise alienate someone at every meal.
One of my sisters had a weak stomach. As the almost youngest, it was hard for my brother, Merle and I to remember that any mention of stuff like worms, maggots, run-over cats, fish guts and such high lights of our day were not to be spoken of. It was a rare meal at our house when she did not have to take a run to the bathroom at least once. She cried pretty easy too.
Mother, who survived our family meals by reading the Times, almost always came upon some article that affected her mightily. One time a Catholic School in Chicago burned and we all, struck at least temporarily dumb, listened spellbound with forks raised, to the details of how the heroic nuns led their choking little charges from the burning building. Roosevelt's speech following Pearl Harbor was read to us. (He wasn't nearly as riveting as the heroic nuns.) We knew every publicized detail of every murder, rape, kidnapping and act of mayhem that occurred within the reach of the Times and the Associated Press. At election time we were often awed to silence, (short ones) by Mother's descriptions of the character of most of the local candidates, with whom she seemed to have had at least passing words at some time or other.
At our table I've seen strangers absent mindedly hand a platter or bowl on without remembering to help themselves. This was a mistake because a platter or bowl NEVER made it around the second time at our house. Company always seemed to be impressed by the serious nature of our family mealtime.
I've heard it said that families don't eat set-down meals together like they used to. That's too bad.
I can still hear my mother's words on the subject as we straggled away from the table..
" I wish I could eat just one G.....D...... meal in peace.