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www.mn.catholic.org.au Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
Google "importance of family table" and you might be
amazed at what appears. In terms of building relationships
and effective communication, encouraging good nutrition,
staying in touch amid busy lives and even being a little
bit counter-cultural, gathering around a table to enjoy a
meal as a family ticks all the boxes.
Clare Howlett of Merewether shares her experiences.
By CLARE HOWLETT
THERE IS A PLACE in our home where
the secrets of life unfold on a daily
basis. Joys are shared, patience
is learned, tears are shed, kindness is
applauded, sorrow experienced, (my)
mental health challenged, discipline taught,
love encouraged and gratitude expressed
for all that we have.
The meal is only the excuse that brings us
to the family table. It is the encounter with
one another that matters. My husband and
I grew up in homes where the evening meal
was a family affair. So I guess we took it for
granted that we would continue this with
our own family. Most of my "lessons of life"
were learned there. No topic was off limits
and our Catholic family views on all issues
were explained and dissected. Our opinions
were considered, even if more often than
Our family meals often feel more like a
courtroom or a boxing ring. Countless times
I've given myself heartburn, acting as judge
and referee. Sharing each evening meal
with a 'dog' a 'tortoise', a 'dragon', and
a 'mouse', my husband and I have also
gained many valuable lessons. We have
shared our table with some challenging
personalities - picky eaters, disgruntled
parties, sulky individuals, teary tantrum
throwers - but we have also encountered
the clown, the peacemaker, the eternal
Fellow parishioner, Moira Gordon,
recently reflected on her family table:
When we were first married, my late
husband and I loved to have friends
come to our home and share a meal with
us. Then, with a number of little children
close in age, feeding them became a
busy time and, after they had been
satisfied, we would relish sitting together
at the table and enjoying our meal. As
the children reached school age, they
too started to spend more time over their
meal, chatting and sharing stories. The
evening meal became a firm feature of
our family life.
Once in their teens, however, weekend
meals became disjointed. Their father
made a firm rule: be home for Sunday
night dinner! We firmly believed that a
shared meal was a Eucharist and an
appropriate celebration of the Lord's day.
Have you counted how many meals are
recorded in the gospels?
So, the institution of the Gordon family
dinner night became established. Friends
and drop-ins were always welcomed, so
Sunday night dinner became an elastic
and enjoyable event, where a past week
was reviewed and another one planned.
It's a long time since the weekly family
dinner was obligatory. Family
members still enjoy coming, but
now it's a floating population.
The tradition survived as
people left home, married
and began their own families.
The community at the table
grew, to the point where two
sittings again became the rule -
grandchildren eating first, and then
the older generations eating at a more
relaxed pace while children played. As
the grandchildren began reaching
school age, by consensus, family dinner
moved to Saturday night. This had the
added benefit of giving young families
somewhere to go on Saturday night,
where their children were also welcomed.
My kitchen is a hive of activity as food
is prepared (we take it in turns), people
gather and news exchanged. This is all
part of the enjoyment, so much so that
Saturday family dinners at my place have
been known to continue in my absence!
Now the oldest grandchildren are young
adults, living their own lives, working
or partying on Saturday night, and their
presence is less frequent. Who eats at
which sitting is no longer determined
by age but by other commitments. The
couple seeing a play or the person off
to work joins the first sitting while the
grandchild returning from an afternoon
shift joins the later group.
With six of my children and their families
living locally, we are fortunate that the
tradition of a weekly family meal can
continue. I am delighted that family
members continue to want to come
together for this sacred occasion.
optimist and the idealist. We have learned
about gentleness in our words and action,
and, above all sharing: food, laughter,
conversation, family traditions, manners,
knowledge, good and bad days. A regularly
shared meal creates the right environment
and opportunity to offload, disclose, air
grievances, encourage, proffer alternative
solutions and, most importantly, feel safe.
Of course, the menu is always critiqued:
"I hate stir fries", "I want macaroni!", "A
baked dinner again?" The ever faithful,
always hungry 'dragon' will eat anything for
the promise of dessert.
In a world where there are so many
distractions, I also feel this meal encounter
is a reminder of our family's purpose: to
return and replenish ourselves regularly
with what really matters. Admittedly my
family is in the magical age of its lifespan.
Three children are in primary school and
one is in Year 7. They still largely believe
that we know what we're talking about - no
need to spoil it for them yet. We still enjoy
each other's company - most of the time. I
also know that in the not too distant future
this will change and new personalities will
appear at our table. Yet I suspect that the
family meal, and the encounter it allows,
will become even more important.
I asked the kids, "What is it
you like about eating dinner
together?" The response that
stood out for me was from the
tortoise (11): "I like that we get
your full attention Mum." I think
in a couple of years it will be me
saying that to her.
'Grace' is standard procedure. My husband
and I are determined to teach our children
gratitude for their circumstances. This act
of acknowledgement takes about thirty
seconds each day, but will foster a lifetime
of thanks in our children for every meal they
receive. When I remind the kids how little
the African children have to eat, the 'mouse'
is always keen to send his vegetables
to them. Whilst we might not be able to
send the mashed potato envelope to
Africa, we send them a prayer of solidarity
Recently I heard of a family with a lovely
tradition. Each person shares three
things about their day: the best thing that
happened; the worst thing that happened,
and a person he or she has helped. The
two children of the house, now in high
school, are embarrassed when their
parents' visitors ask "Can we do 'best and
worst' tonight?" Whoever is at the table -
friends, grandparents or exchange students
- takes part in the ritual.
I think most of us, whatever our stage of life,
have fond memories of our childhood family
tables. Perhaps there remains a part of us
that yearns for those days in the comfort of
people who know and love us better than
anyone, where we can simply 'be'.
I hate stir
fries, I want
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