Sunday Dinner, Bringing Family Back to the Table

We have regular Sunday Dinners. This same type of event that when I was a child was a ritual for many that signaled the end of the weekend and the beginning of the work week.

It all started a few years ago, when I felt like I should have been enjoying an empty nest, more people flowed in and out of my house than I had given birth to.

One Saturday afternoon, I had plans that included only me, a glass or two of good white wine, the dog, and an afternoon of couch surfing and channel swapping between the Sci-Fi channel and the Food Network.

In my kitchen, however, my two daughters and two nieces appeared to be permanently ensconced around a table loaded with snack food. They showed no awareness or consideration that I might have plans that did not include their uninvited and unexpected presence. I overheard one of the girls mention she would go on a wine run to add to the snack food booty sitting in front of them. I could see my afternoon ebbing away. The conversations were important to the girls in their own universe, young women who simply must share with each other their personal epiphanies as they mature. I get that. I was there in a not so distant past, but not on that day.

Taking control, I asked, “When are you guys leaving?”

Their look of crushed emotions made the Mommy in me feel like I had to make it better, so I said, “Come back tomorrow, we’ll have a Sunday Dinner.”

I pulled that one right out of the air. Like many a resourceful Mom, I inadvertently hit pay dirt.

The girls were delighted, excited even. “Cool!” was the first reaction. “Can we break out the good wine glasses?” was the next. Over the next half hour, as I ushered them to the front door, which is less than fifteen feet from the kitchen table, we had chosen the wines and planned an adult and a kiddie menu.

What we did not plan on was that Sunday Dinner was to become a regular tradition combining food, camaraderie, and a chance to catch up on one another’s lives.

That first Sunday Dinner included just those girls and their own family or significant others and has since become a much anticipated event to include other folks who just want to enjoy the comfort of a sitting around a dinner table in the company of others.

The benefits for all were obvious with that first meal. I enjoy cooking and get to do so for an appreciative crowd. They get a great meal for free. I get check in on them and to see how everyone seems to be doing with life in general. They get to hang out at “home, sweet home”.

As in many homes there are basic guidelines for conduct and for conducting a Sunday Dinner:

Rule #1: What is said at Sunday Dinner, STAYS at Sunday Dinner. Those that attend may politely say whatever they wish, but must observe the mantra, “What is said at the Sunday Dinner table, stays at Sunday Dinner.” Those that choose to not attend are fair game for the subject matter of after dinner conversations while we sip our coffee and tea or finish our wine.

Rule #2: No take home platters for no-shows, unless one has to work. Writing your NASCAR blog, or managing your fantasy baseball league is not considered working, and this is not a take-out restaurant.

Rule #3: No cell phones, BlackBerrys or iPods at the dinner table.

Rule #4: Grandchildren and other guest youngsters do not get punished during Sunday Dinner, unless there is bloodshed or loosened teeth or reckless damage. It is their Sunday Dinner too. Kids play. Kids fight. Kids will be kids, especially at Sunday dinner.

Rule #5: There is strict assigned seating. Really, it’s more like a staked claim on prime real estate. It is a natural selection of where someone is comfortable. As an accidental matriarch, I anchor one end of the table and as the self-assigned patriarch my husband Mike anchors the other end, closest to the kitchen.

Everyone’s claim on their seat is never offered up, even to a special guest. They just get squeezed in somewhere along the table. To my left is the daughter who could not wait to move out on her own and gave us grief for much her thirty years, but she never gives up her seat next to me, not even to her Grandmother. She once said to my mother-in-law as she began to sit in that seat, “Oh, no, no, Mom-mom, you sit next to Daddy, this is my seat.” On my right is my oldest daughter and next to her sits her daughter. The rest of the seats are filled in by regulars, spouses and guests. Among the regulars along the sides of the table sits two nieces who are more like sisters than cousins to my daughters. They may not always have the same place seat but they always consistently choose to sit on the same side. The older one sits on the right and the younger one sits on the left, the same as my daughters. One of the nieces had to be at work for one of our Sunday Dinners and her fiancé asked if he could come without her. We were flattered while she felt left out. He still comes without her when she has to work and we do make her a take-home plate.

Other benefits of Sunday Dinner surfaced over time. My oldest granddaughter learned the etiquette of a proper place setting. Resistant at first, she now understands the value of having enough silverware and its proper placement at everyone’s plate. She takes so much pride in this task that she keeps a printout of silverware placements folded up in the silverware drawer for reference. Likewise, we reinforce acceptable table manners with the children, whose often overbooked lives with sports, dance lessons and homework sometimes preclude relaxed sit-down dinners.

Sunday Dinner is about more than just getting together. This is an opportunity to check in on each other and strengthen our connections in a relaxed forum of conversation.

Casual conversation provides the fundamental basis for Sunday Dinner. Everyone feels heard and contributes to the discussion. We have leisurely conversations, never rushed, discussing the events of the week behind us and the one before us. Sometimes we have things to cry about, sometimes stuff to laugh about and sometimes we just need to listen to everyone else’s “stuff”.

We talk about our marriages, the good ones and the bad ones, the new ones and the old ones. We talk about the people we miss in our lives, the dead and the living. We talk about all things considered but not regularly spoken. We talk about joy, loss, grief, moving on, holding grudges, letting go, forgiving, forgetting and remembering.

We sure do like to remember. When we miss, talk and remember things about my Mom, the original matriarch, we get our comfort from her signature fragrance, Jean Naté. Last year for Mother’s Day I gave each of the girls a small bottle of their own Jean Naté . When we need a Mom-fix, we take a sniff and pass the bottle around the table. Some weep, most of us smile. It is a most comforting moment to smell Mom.

We talk about how great our kids are and what brats other people seem to have.

For more than any other reason, we come together just to be together, just to hang out.

People like to feel like they belong. What better place to belong than at the dining room table?

Having a Sunday dinner is easy to do. There’s no need to make it an all day affair, after all it’s just dinner. We plan to start at about 3:30 and invite everyone to leave by 7:00 p.m. This is key, no hangers-on. Also, the meal itself isn’t always a big complete supper type meal. Some of our most lively dinners are centered around cheese steak sandwiches and loaded French fries and chicken nuggets which is the younger kids favorite.

Food is comforting with immediate gratification. It is the comfort of the food that brings us to the table and fills our bellies. It is the meal itself that slows us down to enjoy the camaraderie of being in the company of other human beings as we catch up on their lives and catching them up on where we are in our daily life.

It can fill your soul with a sense of yummy comfort by bringing family and friends to the table together for time well spent with each other.