FAMILY dinners are the training academy for life's battles. Ask any cadet. In my family, on the day of the encounter, the women disappeared behind the lines into the kitchen while the men gathered in the front room. My grandfather, in black suit and stiff white shirt, directed skirmishes from his Morris chair. ``What do you think of FDR?'' he'd fire at one of my seven uncles. During the answering barrages Grandpa stroked his big white mustache, a Southern colonel overseeing his troops. When there was a temporary cessation in activity, he'd lob another incendiary. Hostility was not permitted to die.

Dinner was served at noon. The adults were seated at a big table in the dining room. We children, elbow to elbow in the kitchen, shared the objective of someday getting to the big table.

All our meals started with a blessing and through prayer we learned deferred gratification. If Uncle Ed said the words, the food cooled as he reminded God of oversights. If it was Tom, we ate while the food was hot. Huddled in silent ambush, the cousins waited for the signal ``amen'' before attacking.

At dishwashing time the tactic of diversion reached its zenith. Nothing worked. Boys, of course, were exempt from duty, but dirty dishes were the enemy and we girls had to conquer them. An apron was tied around the one condemned to wash, bleached white flour sacks issued to the driers, and soon we girls began to sing.

During my high school years I dropped out of ``those dumb family dinners.''

``They're stupid,'' I announced. ``I don't want to spend my time with people who make me sit in the kitchen because of when I was born.''

Circumstances aided in my decision to avoid the gatherings. My college was too far away for me to come home for holidays. However, after I married I was eager to return and bring my conquest back. My husband was to be my pass to the adult table, but it was years before we could afford to attend. It was a Thanksgiving.

A sharp wind whipped against my grown-up body and the flapping baby blanket snapped like a battle flag as I walked up Grandmother's familiar front steps. The air was full of remembered chrysanthemum smells. My husband, carrying the diaper bag, brought up the rear. It was almost noon.

``My goodness, you've grown up.''

``See you got yourself a man.''

``Put on some weight, haven't you?''

Voices bugled together with familiar kisses and hugs.

``We're about ready to sit down,'' Grandmother said. She turned to my husband, ``Since you're new to our family, you sit here, next to Dad.''

Victory was mine. I could hear the trumpets as I charged the table, my infant like a sidecar, riding on my hip.

``I put you in the kitchen.'' Grandmother's words brought me to a halt. ``It'll give the little one a chance to know her cousins,'' she explained.

I hesitated for a moment to regroup, then headed to my familiar outpost, leaving my big-table goal behind forever. I had, after all, been enrolled by birth in an academy called family.

It produces no graduates.

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