Every day there’s another story about our divided nation — how we can’t talk to each other, how violent we’ve become in our self-righteous attitudes. And every day I wonder — how did we get this way? Were we always like this, and I just hadn’t noticed? Was I succumbing to the belief that life was better — and people were nicer — in the “good old days?”
I found my answer in an unexpected place. I was reading a chapter about food in an anthropology textbook. It quoted sociologist Janet Flammang, who said that the “table is where we learn the art of conversation.”
I was transported back to my childhood in Pittsburgh and the frequent visits to my Aunt Leslie and Uncle Don. What I remember most about those visits was the dining room table. It was long, with plenty of room for my big Italian family: my aunts and uncles, my hippie cousins, my grandparents and of course, my parents and sister and me.
And who could forget the food? My aunt loved to cook, and the table was always covered with the most delicious repast.
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But what I really remember about that table was the conversations we had around it. Sometimes we told stories: like the day the guy from the Mafia came to my uncle’s thriving shoe-repair shop and asked him to join them (he declined); or how my cousin discovered that the three miles my uncle used to walk to school in the snow (uphill, both ways) was really only about three blocks.
Other times we talked about more controversial subjects: smoking, race, Vietnam. Nothing was off limits. With so many age groups and occupations, there were always varying opinions on all topics, which made for some lively arguing, affectionate teasing and especially laughter. I can’t remember a day at that table when my sides weren’t splitting or tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard.
And that, I believe, is how we’ve changed. Family members move away to find jobs now, and we don’t have those extended family meals every week or month. Of course, we invite our friends over for a meal when we have time, but since our friends tend to share our beliefs, there’s no real exchange of different opinions.
It was in that atmosphere of love and sharing food with people who didn’t always share our beliefs that we learned how to express our opinions and listen to someone else’s, and occasionally even be swayed by them.
In Flammang’s words, at the table, we “learn to feel connected, and learn to trust ourselves and others.” At Aunt Leslie’s table, we learned all that and more: we learned how fun it can be to have a really good argument.
Is Aunt Leslie’s table just a relic from a bygone era? I don’t know.
But I do know that if we want to learn to connect to each other again, there has to be food. And stories. And multiple generations.
Oh, and laughter. Did I mention there was laughter?
Donna Guardino of Lexington has worked for 13 years in higher education. She has a masters in linguistics and is fluent in German. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.