Dressing for Dinner: Keeping Family First in our Demanding Days

dressing-for-dinner

For as long as I can recall, my family has possessed a unique ability to command strong opinions from our peers and colleagues. Wherever we go, we can always be sure that there’s some radical reputation preceding us in our arrival. We’re regarded as crazy and terrifying for our ideological convictions, as almost fanatical in our love of the outdoors, and as begrudgingly respectable for our academic and professional successes, but despite this broad smorgasbord labels, there is one surprisingly distinction that always seems to have risen above the others as my family’s most remarkable quality: we are the family that still dresses for dinner.

It always seemed strange to me, as a child, that of all the things that could be said for, or against, my family, this was the one that struck people as particularly noteworthy, and impressive in its strangeness, but as an adult, with greater exposure to society beyond the walls of my home, and more insight into the perspectives of those whose priorities diverge from my own, I can understand why dressing for dinner garnered such an incredulous response: for most families in modern society, the idea of being able to commit two to three hours of every evening to sitting down together at the same time and in the same place, is quite literally considered impossible. Most families, I’m told, don’t even have the time necessary to cook a proper supper- say nothing of setting the table every evening, and putting on a freshly-pressed outfit in its honor. The first question that I’m always asked, after informing people that this seemingly infeasible stunt was not reserved for holidays and special occasions, but instead was a nightly affair in my household, is always some variation or another on “Where on earth did you all find the time?”

The initial query always precedes a barrage, “Didn’t your parents have to work?” “Didn’t you and your siblings have extracurricular activities?” “How did you have the time to study, or do your homework?” The thing that baffles me most about the line of questioning that inevitably ensues is the fact that so many people speak as though they are completely powerless over their lives and schedules. They speak of football practices, of piano lessons, of late nights at the office, as facets of life as inescapable as breathing oxygen, or sleeping, and not as conscious choices regarding how they use their time.

My family certainly had its fair share to work around. My father’s career can be demanding and time-consuming. My mother is a homemaker, but has commitments with volunteer organizations several days a week. All of my brothers were on the rifle team; one of them also founded our school’s math club. My sister plays the violin, and I was the president of our photography club. We’re fortunate enough to have my grandparents living with us, but while my Oma is a great help in the kitchen, and my Opa’s quite the handyman around the house, they’re both enjoying a well-earned retirement, and we make it a point not to impose on them. So it’s not as though my family was blessed with an incredible surplus of time; we just made different decisions about how that time would best be distributed. For us, being together was the number one priority, and in order to get there, we all made sacrifices accordingly.

Others in my father’s field often find themselves putting in late nights at the office; my father, instead, wakes at 5:00 a.m. every day to begin his work, breaking for just an hour to eat breakfast with the family at 7:00, and sees to it that he’s in the office by 8:00 a.m. so that he can be off at a reasonable hour. My brothers and sisters and I have always made an effort to choose extracurricular activities that were built into the school day; my sister is able to get in an hour of violin practice in orchestra class, my brothers are permitted to use rifle team as an athletic credit, and on days when I had meetings of Photography Club after school, I got a head start on my homework during lunch. My mother enforced a two-hour homework and study block every evening that commenced at 5:00 p.m.; those who were home earlier could start earlier, but nobody was permitted to stay at school later than that; now that some of us are grown, we enforce the same policy on ourselves, following our father’s example in managing our time during the workday wisely, so that we can be home to join the family for supper. By 7:00 p.m., we’ve laid all tasks aside, and start bringing out the china, the silver, and the candles before hurrying up to our rooms to dress. We ladies always wear dresses, or skirts and blouses; the men wear button-front shirts, slacks, and ties. By 7:30, we’re all standing at our places around the table, waiting for my mother to come out of the kitchen and take her seat among us. Our afternoons and evenings are structured to ensure that as soon as mealtime begins, we have each other’s complete and undivided attention.

Our table serves many purposes. It is our space for celebrating our victories, and airing our grievances. It is a drafting table for family plans and projects; it is a forum in which ideas are interrogated, and political and philosophical perspectives are explored. Everyone is given the opportunity to speak; everyone’s input is regarded with interest, and thoughtful consideration. If one of us has a problem, everyone works together to solve it; if one of us has a goal , everyone volunteers advice and resources to help bring it to fruition; if one of us simply needs talk, her or she will always find several pairs of listening ears, and many willing shoulders to cry on. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough that my grandparents will regale us with one of their stories of the depression, of the war, and of the greatness they witnessed in between, and of their triumph in rebuilding their lives in the wake of a crippling defeat. Often, we grandchildren will follow up by speaking of our work, our studies, and our plans for the future, to let them know that we value their sacrifices, and are doing our best to honor them in the opportunities that their struggle made possible for us— a  beautiful, active interplay between our past and our future.

As a family, we become used to seeing each other functioning in different roles. My father is our provider. My mother keeps the home. My grandparents provide us with wisdom and perspective, and the older siblings help care for and look after the younger ones. These roles are valuable in their own rights, but are always more powerful when they are united, and that’s the most important purpose of assembling together for a family meal: it creates an environment in which we function as a collective body, as something that is greater than each of us as members who comprise it. When we’re at the table together, we act as a unit. We sit side by side. We break the same bread. And in doing this, we offer each other the simple, but powerful reminder that no matter what happens, we always have each other— and I think that the physical embodiment of this truth that family dinners provide is extremely important. I have sworn to myself that I’ll not bore you all with a dense discussion of phenomenology, but let me say at least this much: there is a tremendous affirming power, one that makes the truths we hold in our hearts seem particularly secure, when our knowledge and perception are congruent— when the reality that we know is perfectly reflected in the reality that we see.

It is one thing, for example, to know that you are loved; it is another thing entirely to hear someone say those words to you, to have them draw you into a tight hug, or give you a kiss on the cheek. It is one thing to know that your family is there for you, to love you, to protect you, to support you, and to stand by you in all things; it is another to witness that reality every evening, as you gather with your loved ones, who, in their very presence around you, are echoing your expression of this truth. To me, it is tragic to think that some families seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to affirm their bond through experience. Many families go days, or weeks, without sharing a meal together. Some even go for this long, or longer, without even gathering all their members in the same room. While many would argue (and I, at some level, would agree) that the lack of physical expression of a truth does not alter its value or its character, I know, from experience, that seeing it manifest matters; having lived alone for several years in university before moving back to my hometown to be with my family again, I saw, during the time that I was separated from my loved ones, just how great a void the distance created, and just how important our daily ritual was in helping my ground myself in the aspects of my reality that matter the most.

But even if all this is good and well, and I’ve succeeded in convincing you of the importance of family mealtime, people often still ask, why the “dressing”? Why devote the time that you could spend on more productive things— or, for the matter, sitting down earlier and spending more time together, to your appearance? What meaningful difference does going to the effort to press a new outfit, style your hair, and putting on a tie or a brooch make with regards to the quality of the meal, or the time spent together as a family. In practice? Not that much, but I think that the symbolic ritual is important, because it acknowledges the importance, the sacredness, and the value of the time spent together as family. As a culture, we have a habit of dressing in our best clothing for special events and celebrations; we wear our “Sunday best” to church and places of worship, we don evening wear to attend a ballet or an opera, and deck ourselves out in black tie for weddings. The clothing serves a dual purpose: it’s an expression of respect for the individuals being honored in the occasion, but also for the event or occasion itself, for creating the space for reverence, celebration, and being together. The family dinner, though it occurs with greater frequency than any the aforementioned events, is no less sacred for its commonness, and in my opinion, it ought to continue to be venerated as such. We put on our best clothing in honor of each other, in honor of the ties that bind us, and in honor of the supper table, itself a sort of altar to home and family; it is not by coincidence that it bears a strong semblance to a sacred harrow, bedecked with candles, flowers, food, and drink. When we take our places around the table, we honor our ancestors, who came before us, each playing a role, in turn, to allow us all to be alive, to be in this place, and to be together; we honor ourselves, the work that we’re doing to honor our forefathers, and the role we play in helping each other succeed and find meaning in this world of struggle, and not least, we honor the meal, the table, and the occasion itself, for providing us with the opportunity, night after night, to live and affirm the fundamental unit upon which our great civilization is built. If that’s not a good enough reason to don one’s best clothing, to look one’s best, and to celebrate, then I honestly don’t have any idea what is.

I know that, for those not in the habit of sitting down to home-cooked meal each evening, the idea of so radically overhauling one’s schedule and priorities can be daunting, but I sincerely hope that, if right now, sharing a meal with family currently is not part of your daily, or at the very least, weekly, routine, I hope that I’ve given you cause to reevaluate that, and would encourage you to do what you can (and what your circumstances permit) to remedy that. If sitting down together every evening truly isn’t an option for you, aim for one night a week that you all sit down together. Maybe select a Wednesday evening, to give everyone a chance to unwind and recenter themselves in the midst of the week’s activities. Perhaps take advantage of a Sunday afternoon, a day when most people are free from work, and the week hasn’t yet commence, to spend a few hours in each other’s presence to absorb the love, support, and strength that you need to succeed in the work that the coming days will bring. I know that making this change will take time, effort, and rearranging on the part of all members of the family, but in moments where you feel stressed, inconvenienced, or divided in your priorities, remind yourself that you’re making these sacrifices for the people most worthy of them, and, in time, I promise, you’ll find ways to adapt— and be much happier, and stronger as a family for it. I know that insisting on these changes can be more difficult if you’re not in charge of the household, yourself, and don’t have the final say in the schedule, but it’s worth bringing up to your parents, siblings, and other relatives— because, in a culture where spending time with family has lost its primacy in the modern timetable, chances are, it simply hasn’t crossed their minds, they’ll be delighted that you thought of it.

Once you’ve chosen your day, your time, and your meal, go through all the motions to honor it, to acknowledge the importance of what you’ve done, and the value of the changes that you’ve made. Go to the effort to set your table well. Iron up a tablecloth, bring out a pretty centerpiece, and eat off of your best china or dining set. Make an effort to cook the meal yourself (and feel free to recruit other family members to assist! Some of the best bonding time takes place in the kitchen, and sets the tone for the meal, so don’t miss this opportunity!), be sure to commend everyone for the role that he or she has played in making the evening possible, and don’t refrain from letting each other know how happy you are to be sharing this meal with them, and how much it means to you to have this time with them.

And for goodness, sakes, before you sit down, run up to your room and put on something nice. If your schedule permits, I’d strongly advise readying a whole new outfit for the occasion , but at the absolute least, comb your hair, put on a tie, a nice jacket, a brooch, or something to visibly mark the significance of the occasion. After all, you’re preparing to enter a sacred space, in which you honor your forefathers, your family, and your future. The way I see it, there is no occasion that merits dressing up more than this. 

Für Volk und Familie,

erika-sig-300-x-169

 

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