The family meal used to be an institution. Whatever was going on in your life, everyone was expected to check in for meal time.
It was a way to count heads, to make sure that everyone was safe, and to find out what had happened in our day. My grandparents used it as a time to teach and to talk about life. My brother often used it as an opportunity to tell everything I had done that might mean I was in trouble and he would get to choose the TV programming for the evening. I might have taken that same opportunity myself sometimes.
But it was more than that. Meals were connections and social times with other people. As children, we were always coached on our manners before people got there and given any special instructions that were required. It might be that our visiting Aunt had lost her leg to polio and walked with a limp. Under no circumstances were we to ask about it, or stare, or ask anything about whether she had any children, which she didn’t. I remember listening intently as my grandmother explained that she thought it would be too hard for a child to grow up with a mother who was missing a leg, and she did not want to embarrass them. I wanted to run up and hug my aunt and love her enough in that one evening to make up for all the children she should have had because she was such a beautiful lady. I knew any child would have loved her because I loved her. I couldn’t do that so instead, I was on my best behaviour.
I learned a lot that night about so many things. Every word that my grandmother had spoken in the mere seconds it took her to convey what I just shared, was burned into my soul on so many levels because she framed our behaviour and then we complied. She created a moment that allowed me to feel empathy and compassion for a woman that I might have seen on the street, wondered about, stared at, and even might have made fun of her funny walk.
Sometimes we learned about making sure our guests all had plenty to eat. I remember at harvest time being reminded that the hired men had worked hard in the field all day and that they would get the second helping of fried chicken first and only if there was any left over, could we children have a second piece.
I remember being talked to when we went out to dinner at other people’s places, to be sure that there was enough food for everyone to have the same portion I was taking and never to take the last of anything. If we were hosting, we were always to ask if anyone else wanted anymore mashed potatoes before we dumped the last bit on our plate. My grandparents taught us that we were to make sure that everyone was fed and that if there was not enough, we should go without. They taught us to think about other people and to put their needs ahead of our own being as we had plenty of food in the house to eat if we were still hungry after they went home or we returned home.
It carried over to things we gave away or shared with less fortunate members of the community. I watched my grandfather’s example of always making every effort to preserve the dignity of the person he was helping. He often dreamed up work and handsomely paid people for their effort, instead of giving them a handout that would leave them feeling like they were poor. We were threatened to never mention that someone was wearing our hand me down clothes, even if someone complimented them on how pretty their dress was.
It created a sense of family, not just with our immediate family, but the community. That basic education of caring and sharing and making sure everyone was included became a way of life. It meant that if someone in the community was hurting, the entire community hurt. People showed up when tragedy struck, and not with a vague “if there is anything we can do to help, just let us know” but with their sleeves rolled up, buckets in hand, hot dinners unloaded, and ready to stay until the work was done. We children were volunteered to help look after the little kids, or run errands, or just another pair of hands. I remember one fall after a couple of hard years where the harvest was finally ready, only to have snow threatened in the forecast. I remember how the whole community came together everyone combining one farm until it was done and then moving on to the next, working all through the nights, women keeping food and drink coming out
I remember one fall after a couple of hard years where the harvest was finally ready, only to have snow threatened in the forecast. I remember how the whole community came together everyone combining one farm until it was done and then moving on to the next, working all through the nights, women keeping food and drink coming out to the men, until every farm was completed before the snow hit.
As I grew up in Canada, it seemed to fade away, and so did the feelings of connectedness that grounded us as kids. My Great Great Aunt wrote in my autograph book when I was 8, “Happiness is a rare perfume that we cannot give to others without spilling a few drops on ourselves.” I remember not understanding what she meant at the time and thinking it was and old and stodgy thing for someone to write, but I eventually grew up and understood. When we do kind things for others, when we share what we have, we are all blessed. Nothing feeds our soul more than the knowledge that something we have given of ourselves, has made someone else happy. To hear about, see, or sense that gratitude puts meaning in that very moment that validates all of life.
But that kind of caring takes more than a Hallmark greeting card. It takes action. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what we could do. We didn’t have any magical answers or advice for the mom who just found out she had cancer and not much time to live. We just watched our grandmother hold her while she cried and we took the baby that was handed to us and kept an eye out on the older children at school in case they needed a friend or someone to talk to. We watched the ladies organize meals and rides to the doctor. We saw the men rally round and take care of the dad. We saw the minister spend time by her bedside. We saw people doing. We saw time being given. We saw action.
We did what we could.
The thing is that children used to find their way opportunities of kindness in their play – the kind where they spent hours in the company of one another, enjoying the day. Yes there was bullying and fighting but there were also many awesome moments both tender and fierce as we learned to love one another and bond. Children used to have opportunities presented to them through their family interactions, both the ones where they got together regular with their immediate families, but also their yearly times with their extended families. They used to find those opportunities in the many times they participated as families in their community, in fun get-togethers as well as times when service was offered. Those opportunities just do not present themselves all that often anymore. Our children have “play time” scheduled for an hour on Thursday after school with a hand-picked child deemed suitable by the parent. The children may not even really like one another. All other interactions are in competition based activities where the object is to outdo the other children, even when they are on the same team. Families don’t have meals together, they don’t gather together and even on the rare occasions when they are all in a vehicle traveling somewhere – everyone is occupied in their own world on some type of technical device. People do not attend things as a family. Very few people volunteer or actively seek out ways to help or even know their neighbours. Kids are told that it is not “our business.”
People donate money. They drop off their old things for someone to sort through and distribute. They drop a wrapped Christmas gift at the tree at the mall for underprivileged children. Most children don’t even see that.
So today’s kids might be the brightest and the fastest. They might develop technology we never considered or find cures for diseases or be the first person to skateboard on the moon. Their minds will be brilliant, their bodies bionic . . . but where will their hearts be? Where will their understanding of their connectedness to one another be? Will they ever be able to come together and experience that golden moment of exchange between the giver and the receiver when you know that THIS is what life is all about and that your heart is never truly as full as it is in that moment when you know that you made a difference? Will they ever be blessed to learn life lessons through actions that teach them how to care and love one another? Will they have opportunities to work with and get to know people who need help so that they will understand they are just people, like them? Will they ever even care to try and understand how another human being feels and how their actions impact that person? Will they even care that children somewhere are crying from hunger and loneliness and how will they ever know that they have the ability to make a difference, if they just roll up their sleeves, and show up?