The clacking of knives on plates. The scritch of a fork. The squeak of a chair being pushed back at the end of a meal. Our family’s definition of silence. No one spoke at dinner. Nothing to say. Children should be seen and not heard. We didn’t dare open our mouths, not if we wanted to eat. We’d be sent to our rooms. Politics? Out. Religion? Out. What was left to talk about?
When I grew up and met the man whom I’d marry, I spent time at their dinner table. Or, more often, their breakfast nook, which is where everyone ate if there weren’t guests. Everyone crammed in together, any extras, like me, squished in between my date and one of his three brothers. Family style. All the dishes on the table, lifted, spooned, passed. A few minutes of hunger satiation, then conversation.
My mother-in-law liked to drop bombs into the conversation. A recent political event. Something the local parish priest had said in his latest sermon. The conversation swung this way and that, voices rising as people made their points or disagreed, arguments that stimulated even though I don’t recall one that ever resolved. Only my father-in-law, never a talker, remained focused on his dinner, chewing methodically with his false teeth, letting the talk flow in and around, but never through him.
When the brothers married, conversation around the dinner table was what they missed the most. My husband and I found it easier to talk on Saturday morning. We’d go out to breakfast, talk while we waited for our orders to be brought, eat for a few moment in silence while we satisfied our hunger, talked over coffee and tea afterwards.
It wasn’t until we had our own teenager and all his friends at the dinner table that we could replicate the kind of conversations my mother-in-law prompted. I think of the missed opportunities in my own original family and I’m grateful to my mother-in-law for showing me how to enliven a table, set silence aside, converse.