Right after "American Idol" one recent weeknight, three of Kelly and Chris Dalmass's four children perform what looks like a well-practiced ballet of table setting, milk pouring, and arranging of chairs. The plates and the kitchen floor are well worn, the cups neon plastic.
It's 9:15 by the time their brother has finished practice and comes in the back door of their rambling home. Quickly, Nate, age 12, and his dad take their places at the table with Kelly as well as Kiera, 14; Julia, 11; and Johnny, 10. They join hands and begin a lightning round of a grace, to which each is expected to contribute. Thanks go up for everything from a new baby cousin to – simply – lacrosse, before Dad brings things to a close, as he does every night since 9/11, with a prayer for America and for the troops. The table, which Chris made himself, has gotten a bit snug for their six, his wife explains, but she likes it "because we're close."
As pork chops are passed, the meal takes on a kind of generic dinnertime feel. Wrapped in happy chatter are encouragements and admonishments, mini rebellions and micro corrections, gibes, jokes, banter, and barbs. In this house, you don't have to finish all the food on your plate; but you do have to wear your shirt, take off your hat, mind your manners. Everybody shares the same food. The day's events are replayed, and clarifications sought.
All the while Kelly, a lawyer, and her husband, whose company makes artificial limbs, nudge the family's understanding of the day toward the good: good manners, good schoolwork, good eating habits, good ways to say things, good ways to handle things. So by the time the conversation moves to the next day's schedule, the kids have received a Mom-and-Dad-filtered perspective of the day, a Dalmass reality check – whether they realize it or not.
By 9:45 plates are cleared and kids are off to shower, and their parents catch up with each other over the dishes.
The family finds time to eat together every night, even if, as happens, somebody's practice goes as late as 9, or, as on one weekend recently, there are 20 games on the schedule. Kids are big into lacrosse and soccer – summer leagues, club leagues, winter leagues – and that's not counting the random choir practice, religious ed class, volunteer activity, and such.
The parents share cooking and driving duties, divvying things up daily based on whose schedule allows for which tasks. The first one home cooks, having pulled something out of the freezer in the morning, and the last one home does the carpooling. On many Sundays, the extended family – anywhere from 10 to 35 people total – gather for what everyone considers the real family dinner.
If Kelly and Chris wind up sacrificing some of their own togetherness while they build their family, they consider it temporary and worth it.
Says Kelly: "[Dinner together is] to help our kids grow into adulthood.... I want my kids to love life and to have fun."