Visiting my Great-grandmother, well in her nineties in the 1950s, in Auckland was always a highlight in our childhood. She set her dinner table each night with starched white linen, matching china and silver cutlery. Food was presented in serving dishes. Grace was said. We children sat quietly, ate the food on our plates and spoke when spoken to. We stayed at the table until we were dismissed. Later, we helped with the dishes. I remember her showing me how to dry a fork properly by drawing the tea-towel through the tines. I have wondered how she learned these domestic arts.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, like most girls, I studied Home Science as a school subject. In preparation for our housekeeping roles in later life, we learned to cook family dishes using a variety of foods. We were exhorted not to be wasteful and we followed kitchen cleanliness rules. We were shown how to place cutlery and meal items nicely on a dinner table. The social expectation was families ate together.
Certainly our family did. Dinner was served at 7.00 p.m. once Dad returned to the house and had washed up after he had finished farm work and settled the cows after the evening milking. If there was a roast dinner, Dad would sharpen the bone-handled carving knife with the steel and slice meat onto our plates. Mum dished vegetables from the saucepan. There was less dining formality. The table was covered with an easily laundered, colourful seersucker cloth. The cutlery was stainless steel. Dishes were still done by hand.
If left to and with their own devices, seven grandsons, ages 9 to 16 years, would eat, sleep and live in their own gaming worlds. Virtual worlds in which characters function in perpetual motion, in which no-one eats or sleeps or goes to school. Real world matters such as doing homework, eating meals with your brothers and parents, reading only before lights out, getting ready for school can be at times the stuff of epic battles.
Dinner time is still family time. Typically the reminder, “ten minutes to dinner. Wind up your game. Devices off. Wash your hands. Get to the table.” is an invitation to argue. Perhaps it is the multi-faceted instruction that is too much for the boys to handle. “I’ve just … (take your pick of any gamer grandson excuse).” Houston, we have a problem!
Sons have matured to become the adults at their family meal tables set with mismatched crockery and cutlery, and no tablecloth. They are firm and make a stand, resolute and show determination to hold on, emphatic, and brook no argument. “Which part of NO don’t you understand?” You might think it a simple matter for these tech savvy boys to load and operate a smart dishwashing device. But, no. That remains a mystery. A problem beyond their realm of competence, or comprehension.
Himself and I have to laugh. At times, we hear ourselves in our Sons. We have now lived long enough to enjoy nature’s revenge. How long ago was it when we expected our Sons to bring their A-game to the table? To use cutlery for its intended purpose. To eat the food served to them. To talk about their day. To use table talk manners. Family eating together at the dinner table? Even now, it is still not too much to insist.