Scanning Around With Gene: Kitchen-Table Wisdom
One of the clichés of this election cycle is the image of middle-class Americans sitting around the kitchen table having heavy discussions about our times. And while it is true that many families do still sit down for dinner, and certainly do have heavy discussions and plenty of concerns, I think the kitchen table as gathering point has changed.
This is due to many things, of course, such as the changing dynamics of work schedules, busy kids with lots of out-of-home activities, the role of meal-time television viewing, and smaller families. However, I like to think it may also have to do with the fact that kitchen tables just aren’t what they used to be. I dug around in my archives and came up with these images of kitchen tables from 1938 through 1962. Click on any image to see a larger version.
In my home we had a firm dinnertime of 6 PM, and we three kids were expected to be in our regular seats at that exact hour. Meal-time discussions, fueled by quite a few martinis or whiskey sours (and milk for the kids) were passionate and long.
Both of my parents worked, so most dinner arguments (“discussion” is probably too mild of a term) were a not-so-subtle battle of one-upmanship as to who had either the harder job or the worse day. My mother almost always won these battles.
Our kitchen table was an ordinary fake-woodgrain Formica job that came from Sears, nothing like some of the wonderful cracked-ice beauties shown here. And our chairs were a very ugly 1960s floral pattern. These chairs, on the other hand, are of the two-tone type I always lusted after at neighbors' homes.
I knew of only one family who had a built-in booth, and they had 12 kids, so I guess it made sense. I never really cared for booths as a kid, since it meant you couldn’t lean back on your chair when bored with the adult conversation or when the topic turned to you.
Because I was the youngest, I had an end-seat, with my middle sister stuck between my oldest sister and myself. (Years of therapy haven't addressed the emotional trauma of that.) My dad sat at the head of the table, and my mother sat alone on the side opposite the three kids. No one sat at the other head, which was against a wall. We never deviated from this seating arrangement; all that changed was when someone became old enough to move out, thereby leaving his or her seat empty.
Go to page 2 for more vintage images and more Gene memories.
By the time I made it to high school my oldest sister had left home, and very soon my middle sister did, too, so it was just me, Mom, and Dad. I went through a brief phase of challenging them at the dinner table over their various bigotries, prejudices, political leanings, or other things I disagreed with, but that phase was brief. I soon figured out that arguing with sober people could be productive, but when opinion is fueled by several cocktails, reason always seems to lose out.
So pretty soon I left my parents alone at the dinner table to bicker among themselves, and that seemed fine with them. The dinner table as family gathering spot is charming and heart-warming only when the family actually wants to be together, no matter how nice the table and matching chairs.
I understand why politicians use the kitchen table as a metaphor for American family dynamics. I think it’s a pretty good one, actually, even when your memories of those times are not all pleasant. At least we all sat down together for an hour or so with no music, no television, and no video games to distract us. There’s nothing like silence to bring out the best and worst in family function (or dysfunction).
So while I don’t necessarily think back fondly on those times around the dinner table, I do wish I had any of the great-looking kitchen tables featured this week. Perhaps if my family had gathered around a pink cracked-ice vinyl and chrome dinette instead of a fake-wood model from Sears, we would have been happier.