a voice at the table

by bam

growing up, the table at my house was rather crowded. there were five of us little people, four of us bunched every other year, and then, enough years later to surprise the dickens out of me the day we got the news of the impending arrival, the so-called caboose. blessed caboose.
at the head of every dinner table, in the door like clockwork from the 6:20 train and plunked at the south end of the table, a man who made his living with a typewriter that he pounded late into the night, and a microphone that he carried ‘round the globe.
i cannot for the life of me remember much of the chatter. but i do remember that there was plenty. and i seem to recall that it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
i remember plenty of spilled milk. and the occasional night when i was left to contemplate the peas, the peas that i did not want to eat, the peas that i had so artfully—i thought—tucked beneath the rim of the plate. but eagle eyes herself, my mother, didn’t miss that sleight of legume. so there i sat, silent, miserable, convinced i was the only child in the world left to wither overnight staring at my uneaten, unwanted mushy peas.
i remember in high school a few dining room debates with my father. i was on the side of world hunger. he, ad man for mcdonald’s, was going to bat for big mac. how dare they, i wailed, blaming the golden arches for all that was wrong on the starving continents of the world. how dare i, he thundered back. only, come to think of it, i don’t think thunder would be my father’s verb. i think he was, maybe, solid wall of atmospheric front. not budging, firmly stationed. but not too terribly noisy, either. he made his point, in fact, without too much thunder.
mostly, i remember that he was the most amazing tightrope walker i had ever seen. only his tightrope was a string of words. puns, punch lines, quick wit, those were the tricks with which he dazzled while edging along the taut fine cord strung from one end of the table to the other.
if you could play along, he reached out a hand and lifted you too onto the tightrope, the high wire. you too could swing on my papa’s verbal trapeze. but you’d better be quick. better yet, you could shine if you could match him, come back at him, hook your foot to word cord, and do a loopdy-loop.
it was hard sometimes to make it through a meal. you’d be out of breath, just trying to keep up. it was exercise, getting through the word play that was my family dinner.
i got a workout, all right. but it took a long, long time ’til i found i had a voice, a true deep voice, that i could bring to the table.
the first place to which i brought my voice was blank, blue-lined notebook paper. i wrote in pencil, then pen, long before my fingers knew to land on a, s, d, f, over to the left, and p, l, m, n, cascading down the right.
i remember, long ago, realizing i had become a writer because i finally found a voice. i had found it hard, very hard, to speak deeply from my heart at my dinner table, what with all the tightrope walking and debating all-beef patties versus kwashiorkor’s swollen-belly babies.
i remember, vividly, the night i took a seat at my little maple table. and the man on the other end of the table, a man i’d never eaten with before, a man i’d never before offered a chair at my table, asked me what i wanted in my life. i remember leaning back, laughing, thinking, saying, all at once, “i feel like i could talk to you the rest of my life.”
that man, now my husband, still sits across from me nearly every night at dinner. almost 20 years later, i still laugh, say the same thing. we’re still very much talking.
the amazing thing when you marry is that you get a chance to study closely yet another family. one of the first—and most lasting—things i noticed about my husband’s family was, is, how they sit for hours at the table, really talking, really listening.
is it any wonder, i sometimes wonder, that i was drawn so deeply to a man who so easily, so finely, really, brings his voice to the table. and, most of all, makes room for mine.
it is, of all the gifts we give our children, the one i’d pencil in way, way up, seriously high, at practically the sky-scraping top of the list. it is the gift of being heard at the dinner table.
over the years, as a gatherer of newspaper stories, i have interviewed some truly amazing human beings. the refrain, so often–when asked, what was the elmer’s glue that held you together, that made you who you are–was, time and again, something about always sitting down to dinner. as a family. no matter the hour. no matter the menu. what mattered was that everybody had a place and a voice at the table.
now, i am here to tell you that the eight years between boy 1 and boy 2 at our house make for some rough sledding at the dinner table some nights.
while we zero in on boy 1, intent on probing deep into his oh-so-thoughtful soul, boy 2 decides to slide off his chair and play puppy dog, licking at our legs. or, for variety, he might drop spaghetti, strand by strand, onto the floor, until someone notices the heap and, inconveniently, hits the pause button on what had been boy 1’s careful analysis of al gore and his global-warming truths.
and some nights, i kid you not, it all gets messy. and i don’t mean the scraps dropping to the floor. conversation, when it’s real, is not all clean and tidy. and there are nights at our house, when salty tears add flavor to the food.
but we won’t relent. won’t back down. won’t give in to puppy dogs under tables, or spaghetti balls piling higher with every passing sentence. tears are dried. turns are taken.
the little one, up off the floor, gets his turn. he always does. the little one has 12 more years of family dinners, before he heads off to have his dinners elsewhere. God and admissions boards willing, in some college cafeteria. the big one has only four more years.
the one thing i pray for both my boys is that they look back at the maple kitchen table, or the cherry one in the dining room, and they remember that there, at their places along the east and western edges, they might not always have brought clean hands but they always brought their voices. their deep, rich, steady voices.
and at those tables, the voices always had a place, room to stretch out, to try out new ideas from different angles, to practice thinking. to be heard.
yes, most of all, the table was a place where voices, soft or loud, it didn’t matter, were always, always heard.

certainly, it is the essence of pull up a chair. finding a place at the table where you can boldly bring a voice. where you can pour your thoughts, your heart, your soul. what is dinner like at your house? where, at your house, do you find the fine art of conversation most freely unfolds?