I have so many memories around our family's kitchen table. I can picture the weekly staples that we grew up eating, my mother's immense dislike of our singing while seated at the table, and the time spent talking as a family.
There was no television in the background and no cellphones to distract and disrupt. We simply had each other.
My father's anecdotal stories of growing up were shared. (Over and over, I might add.) Our days at our various schools were rehashed and relived. Mom would cook, and everyone else would handle the clean up. Dessert would always come later, usually ice cream or cookies, while watching our nightly shows.
It was a time that was a part of our family DNA. A sacred place that began with the setting of the table and the prayer before eating.
The menu stayed consistent, as did the presence of my mom and dad. They were engaged and interested the stories their daughters shared. My parents were unknowingly helping me form my beliefs and worldview, all while sharing a meal of tuna casserole and green beans.
As I look back now, I can see it was a holy time.
Race wasn't talked about much around our kitchen table, but when it was, my parents were always affirming and positive. Growing up in small town that is 98% caucasian, we had little experience with other cultures and races. We didn't have a lot of interaction, but that didn't mean we had to be ignorant.
When my sister's best friend, Tim, started joining us around the dinner table in high school, it was simply a matter of moving a chair over and adding a plate. The fact that he was Asian was a non-issue. What threw my parents for a loop was that he ate more than the entire family put together.
When he became my brother-in-law a few years later, our entire family celebrated. Our family DNA had changed and we all agreed we were better for it.
The dynamic shifted considerably when we ate at the dining room table. We would open up our home to extended family, usually only once or twice a year on major holidays, and gather together for a meal. Stories would be shared and inevitably, a racial slur would be uttered. A rabbit trail of disparaging remarks would soon follow. At even a very young age, I bristled at the words and language that I was hearing. Because of the example my parents set at our dinner table, nothing about the interaction sounded redeeming or kind to my ears. And though my mom and dad never joined into those conversations, they also didn't shut them down.
As the years went on and the stories continued, I would learn to just leave the table and busy myself in the kitchen, my mother joining me in solidarity. But still, none of us ever said anything. It was our home, but they were ruling the table.
I don't have a great recollection of all of my childhood anymore, but those dining room conversations have never left me. I have felt the weight of being party to exchanges that tore down entire racial groups. As a family, my parents and I look back now and know it should have been handled differently.
No excuses. No "that's just how we were raised," and "we didn't know any better," platitudes. Our silence was wrong and we own that now. My lack of response to those conversations is still a difficult pill for me to swallow at times, as I look in the present faces of my three loves. But I cannot change my past decisions, so I focus now on my current responses. There will not be a hesitation if the situation ever arises again, that my mama heart knows for sure.
These days, our family is divided across two states and three homes, and meals together are far and few between. When we do have the privilege of eating together, there are chairs and booster seats pulled up holding beautiful faces who don't look quite like one another. Korean, Irish, English, Congolese, and African American. Our family DNA has expanded with wide-spread arms and open hearts.
Each one of those faces sweetly remind us that our dinner table must remain a sacred space. Undefiled and intentional.
The conversations held around the kitchen tables across our country every night are setting the stage for the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and world-changers.
Research has shown that by age twelve, most children have formed a complete set of stereotypes about ethnic, racial,
and religious groups in our society. Those first twelve years are the formative ones, where our children are looking to us for guidance, for direction, and for answers. It's the sliver of life when they are content at home and eager to sit at the table with us.
What we bring to the kitchen table, as their parent, matters immensely.
A healthy meal is important, but what comes out of our mouth will leave a legacy much greater than what we put in their bellies.
When we speak of race and culture to our children, let it be edifying and redeeming to their ears. Let our stories told at the table be full honest recollection and objective truth. May our children understand that different is not weird, it is unique.
If the only words about other races and cultures that leave our mouth reek of negativity and bitterness, then our children will carry that taste with them.
Let us not provide them with the opportunity to blame their behavior or their words on their upbringing.
Our children will not always eat every meal at our dinner table. They will sit at a cafeteria table with their peers every day, year after year. They will visit the dining rooms of friends and other family members.
Who do we want them to be at those tables?
What will be the words that they speak across those tables?
Most likely, they will be our words. Straight from our lips.
Our dinner table is still sacred. Whether it's time together over fish sticks or filet mignon, these moments with our children matter. Let's not miss them.