Good Times and Sharp Minds, Both Served Up at Dinner

A recent survey of students who scored in the upper percentiles on the SAT found only one common factor. Regardless of race, sex, or economic status, high achievers all came from families that ate dinner together.

My grandmother would have understood. For her, dinner, particularly Sunday dinner, was a time to gather information, interrogate her relatives, discuss politics, books, religion - in short, a way to get her children and grandchildren talking and thinking. She used Sunday dinner the way a coach uses warm-ups for a meet. We exercised our minds while we digested our food.

My mother, sister, and I went to live with Grandma during World War II when I was 8. An aunt and her family lived next door. When we all gathered for Sunday dinner, there were at least 12, plus the assorted guests who always seemed to appear at mealtime.

Sunday meant a white tablecloth and cloth napkins folded into silver or bone napkin rings. Sometimes flowers from the garden filled a vase. The roast or chicken rested on a platter guarded by brilliantly colored peacocks and flamingos peering from the borders of serving dishes that held the ever-present potatoes - diced, boiled, mashed, oven-browned - and the vegetable of the day from our victory garden. After the main course came salad, either lettuce or the hated endive, a curly bitter green that had to be totally consumed before dessert.

When you were old enough to sit at Sunday dinner with the grown-ups, you became a full-fledged member of the family, on equal footing regardless of your age. For my younger sister, equal footing meant sitting in a youth chair to bring her up to eye level with the rest of us. Grandma always sat at one end of the table; Uncle Charlie, carving and serving the food, at the other. The rest of the family ranged in between, kids alternating with grown-ups to keep us from harassing each other.

The heart of the meal was the conversation. Grandma usually led with a topic like the upcoming local election, but it wasn't always serious. Uncle Bill would tell stories about his barber-shop quartet, or Mrs. Boe, our widow neighbor, would talk about an article she'd just read in the Saturday Evening Post. Factual questions were referred to the encyclopedia in the living-room bookcase. Arguments over the meaning of a word would send someone to the dictionary on the window-seat to confirm that "exculpate" was not the same as "excoriate."

Whatever your age, you were expected to participate. Sometimes I felt like a ball girl at a tennis tournament. When the conversation would drop, I'd pick it up and throw it back to Grandma with a question or comment like, "What happened next?" or "Why do you think that?" When I got older, I'd ask, "Should we have a three-party system?" "Should workers be allowed to organize?" She liked that. Maybe her dinner-table coaching had something to do with the scholarship I won to college.

Grandma was not beautiful; she didn't even want to be beautiful. It wasn't that she didn't care about how she looked, she just thought other things, like ideas and politics, were more important. She never went to college, but she was well-read and could quote from the classics, poetry, the Bible, or The Wall Street Journal to support a point. She was strong and vehement in a short, stocky way - like a force of nature. When I was small, I used to lean against her the way a tiny sailboat leans into the wind. I loved her.

THE tradition of Sunday dinner continued after Grandma died. Like orbiting planets, the members of the family seemed destined to constellate around a table, held by the gravity of our affection for each other. In due time, my home became the Sunday stop.

The food wasn't as good as Grandma's, nor the setting so formal. Still, we gathered around the table to eat, argue, laugh, and tease, scanning each other's faces to read the current weather of our hearts. Grandma would have been pleased. She would also have noted that all her grandchildren did just fine on their SATs.

My children's friends thought it odd that they had to forgo typical teenage activities to be home for Sunday dinner. My kids never complained, but I realized things were changing. More and more, people ate at TV tables or kitchen counters, their eyes focused on the omnipresent electronic entertainer instead of each other. Conversation atrophied from lack of use.

Today the pressures on two-career families threaten to make the idea of family dinner, on any day of the week, extinct. A friend who runs a day-care center says parents guiltily report they are so exhausted after work that they forgo dinner and make do with popcorn or toast before the kids are rushed to bed.

More is involved here than dietary neglect. The mind needs feeding as well. Conversation, even rudimentary conversation, exercises mental muscles. Thinking through a problem, arguing a position, has to be modeled for children, and talking is a simple way to begin. Parents are teachers whether they know it or not.

If my grandmother were still with us, she would give parents eminently practical advice. Instead of recommending expensive tutors and coaches to get their children into the best colleges and universities, she would say, "Come over for Sunday dinner."

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