In the house where I grew up, dinner was served at 6 o’clock every night. If my six older siblings were home – not away at college or married yet – there would be nine of us at the table. Three sisters were on one side and three brothers on the other, with my father at the head of the table and my mother at the other end, closest to the kitchen door. As we gathered in the dining room, one of my brothers was told to bring the piano bench from the living room to the corner of the table nearest my mother. As the youngest, this was my seat at the table.
The dining room at dinner time was a busy, noisy place with a sense of urgency around the table – to get the food on your plate and eat fast for perhaps a better shot at any second helpings that might be available. I recall patiently waiting for someone to “fix’ my baked potato for me, adding butter and cream, and mashing all that together till I said That’s good. There was also a lot of talk at the table, much of which escaped me due to my being so much younger than my siblings as my parents had had five children in the first ten years of marriage, and then ten years later my brother and myself. It was their oldest son, Arthur, who dominated the dinner table. Art’s seat was on the left at center. When he looked across the table he faced three sisters, but it was past them and over their heads that an enormous mirror hung on the wall. Art would tell stories, funny stories that made everyone laugh, but his eyes were always set on his own reflection in the mirror while telling his stories. His Irish heritage had given him the gift of telling a good story, but coupled with this DNA, he had just the right seat at the dinner table to fully develop this skill. Michael Fox once said that the oldest form of theatre is the dinner table. My brother Art, these sixty years later, still has the power to quickly hush any family gathering when he starts to tell a story.
About ten years later, in 1965, I was sitting at the same dining room table. I now had a regular seat at the table, along with two sisters who had graduated college and were teaching, my brother two years my elder, and my parents, still presiding at either end of the table. There was often a “discussion” after dinner in which we were expected to intelligently participate, a discussion that often began with a question. One evening, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied “a lawyer”. My father lowered his glasses down his nose, a habit of his which marked both grave seriousness and firm conviction, looked directly into my eyes, and he said:
A courtroom is no place for a woman.
There was no discussion. That was the end of that topic. My father had had a twenty five year career as a lawyer, and at the time of this event he had completed ten years serving as a judge for the county in which we resided. So I had to assume he knew what he was talking about, as well as knowing that any declamation made with his glasses that low on his nose was not to be defied. It had never been stated, but it was understood – his sons were to be lawyers and doctors, his daughters teachers. I cannot judge him harshly for this, as he was a man of his time who dearly loved and diligently protected both his sons and daughters.
Since I could not be a lawyer, I knew at the age of 11 that I had to sort something else out for myself. In retrospect, this was a blessing, as not being allowed to follow in my father’s footsteps gave me the enormous freedom of having to create my own path. I would trade with no one the road I took. No one. (My glasses are low on my nose here and I am looking directly at you.)
I sometimes try to imagine what my father might say if he could see his granddaughter, a lawyer, going about her business in one of those prohibited courtrooms. At the same time that my father so sternly spoke to me at the dinner table that evening, the woman’s movement was just getting started, and in a few years time, I was upstairs in my bedroom reading Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and experiencing my own coming of age in the sixties. Perhaps Ronald Reagan was right when he said: All great change in America begins at the dinner table.
My final story about the dining room table in the house where I grew up happened ten years later, when I was twenty one. At the time, I was spending most of time in England and Ireland, the reasons for which do not relate to this story. Suffice to say I did not spend much time stateside. But on this day I was home which I recall was around Christmas. Of the seven children, five had married, and the marriage of the sixth was being planned for the following summer. Anna, the oldest of all my siblings, had finally met Mr. Wonderful. We were at the dining room table, and she was trying to set the date for her wedding, but she needed to know when in July I could be home, as I was to be her maid of honor. I was being non-committal, as I was not sure I would even come home for this event. I was not sure where I would be next summer, not sure where I belonged, not sure about the relationship I was in at the time, and just thinking about all this brought me enormous anxiety. But my sister did not know that. All she knew is that she wanted me at her wedding. There were awkward pauses as she relentlessly tried to pin me down to a date. Finally, almost in tears, she said: Susie, I want you at my wedding.
She did not have to lower a pair of glasses down her nose for the gravity of that statement to have had any a profounder effect on me. The way she said that sentence was when it finally got through my thick head that right here sitting across from me at the dining room table was someone who loved me. Someone who was willing to plan the biggest day in her life around my schedule. So I told my sister to just name the date, I would be there. And I was. And that was a very good thing because it was at her wedding that I met my very own Mr. Wonderful.
I am not sure who said this, but I know it is true. All those years of sitting down to a meal together drew a line around us. A line of love.