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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Gathering and the Family Dinner

The Reagan family dinner
Publicity still from CBS Television

Our family dinner
 The Tavern

"You can't forget how important coming together is, whether it be a mom and a son, a dad and a daughter, whether the family be ten people, or twenty people, or a million people.  
Dinnertime is the perfect time for that.  Dinnertime is the perfect time when you can sit down, you can offer thanks to your kids for making you laugh, or to your parents for supporting you, 
or to a god for looking out for you.  
You can just close your eyes, and open them again 
and realize that you have the opportunity every day to change your life, 
or change someone else's.
Dinnertime is a great time to think about that."

--Dillon, age 22
From "Dinnertimes: Stories of American Life, 1912 to 2012

"Sitting down to a meal together draws a line around us.
It encloses us and strengthens the bonds that connect us
with other members of our self-defined clan,
shutting out the rest of the world"
--Miriam Weinstein

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited passages.

This week we had as guests my wife's sister and her two daughters.  It's always a happy time to have family in for a few days, especially since my wife is always so homesick for Hawai'i

Yesterday, at their request, we drove up to Gettysburg and toured the battlefield and the visitor's center.  Today, we slept in a little and after I got back from my run, we drove to the quaint little village of Upperville, Virginia and broke bread at the Hunter's Head Tavern.  This delightful place is ensconced in a converted home, built around 1750.  It has a good-size patio and garden out back, the perfect backdrop to an evening meal.

From the moment we arrived, we chattered happily, sharing memories and anecdotes, those bits and pieces of life that so clearly define a family.  We sat at the table and enjoyed a delicious meal, as the food always is at the HH.  But the best part of the evening was the sheer joy at simply being together.

There were twelve of us altogether seated around the weathered old table sharing stories and gossip, reveling in the tales of travels to Asia and Europe shared by our two nieces.  It was a wonderful time, a precious all-too-fleeting time.

After returning home, I thought about how valuable, and in many ways, a forgotten treasure a family meal truly is.

Our culture is a busy one.  Our jobs keep us busy enough, and the ancillary duties of running a family, a household, and all those lives soak up a lot of hours.  With the advent of television those hours that used to be filled with being a family are spent -- or misspent -- staring zombie-like into that glowing and seductive cyclopean eye.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, to hear about how American families are disintegrating.  

What little series TV I watch anymore is highly selective.  One of my favorites is Blue Bloods, a CBS drama about a family of career cops and one assistant district attorney.  This is a family with not a lot of spare time on their hands, yet they will move heaven and earth in order to make sure that they are free for Sunday dinner.  The setting, around that table, becomes a laboratory of sorts, as issues are aired and worked out, helping move the plot forward.  But watching carefully, there is also love being shared; the common bond of a strong and vibrant family history.  There is the feeling that whatever disappointments the individuals experience in their separate lives, here at this table can be found the absolute sanctuary of people who not only call you out when you're wrong, but will nevertheless forever have your back.

Yet, outside this fiction, we seem to have lost that.  When I was growing up in the early- to mid-60s, family dinner, not only Sunday but every other evening, was something that never had to be planned.  It just happened.  Because it was supposed to.  After school, after work, after practice, everyone gathered around that table.  Between the roast and potatoes, the salad and the pie, we talked about just about everything.  Even as a kid, I had the gift of complete acceptance; that even the small, mundane things in my young life were worth an adult's complete and undivided attention.  The experience was unifying, establishing and cementing those relationships that would eventually keep me out of the worst kind of trouble in my teen years.

Later when my wife and I were growing our own family, we held to that tradition, at least at first.  Here was where we found out about each other, both what had happened and what was on the horizon.  But as they grew older, their activities, and ours, began to eat into much of that time.  It got to the point where the only time we broke bread as a family were special occasions, such as birthdays, celebrations, and the occasional Sunday out.  I freely admit that a lot of this was my fault.  All I had to to was prioritize a little, put my foot down, and make The Rule.  And follow it.  That I failed to do so is one of the greatest regrets I have as a parent.

Today, our children are adults, sunk deep into the complexities of their own lives.  We do get together from time to time, at least once during the holidays, but those times when we are all together under the same roof --and around the same table -- at the same time are rare, indeed.

I try to learn from my mistakes, although this particular one has its own sobering statute of limitations.  I do what I can to plan for those times when all of our schedules can mesh and allow us to gather.  This has become important to me, perhaps because of my age and the almost conscious sound of the clock ticking and the calendar turning.

You see, the most valuable possession at the end of life is not gold, nor silver, nor property. It is that family that gathers at your bedside for that final goodbye.

If you're a young parent, or even a 30-something parent reading this, and you suddenly realize you can't remember the last time you had a family meal, please take the effort to make that happen.  Regularly.  Don't make the false promise of "later."  Tomorrows have a distressing tendency to become yesterdays before we realize what has been lost.  Make today your plan to gather your family and let them know that whatever else happens, this family will stand together. Forever.

In this dangerous and uncertain world, there is no greater gift to give to a child.
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