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'90s FAMILY : Turning the Tables : The days of a family dinner hour seem to be gone. But some parents persevere. And others make their own rules.

August 02, 1995|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is your dinner table hidden under last week's newspapers, expired coupons and layers of dust? Then you're probably eating dinner on a TV tray, racing through the fast-food line or grazing like the family cat--a nibble here and there.

So what happened to cheerful faces sharing the days events along with the seven basic food groups while sitting around the table? You won't find them on today's sitcoms unless you're watching reruns of "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet."

Some families struggle to keep the tradition alive while others, such as novelist and Washington Post book reviewer Carolyn See, think the funeral is long overdue.

"It's highly overrated," See said. "If you like each other it's wonderful to sit down at the dinner table and talk, but where people are not very fond of each other, it's torture."

See has a theory that one out of every five people in a family is usually in a bad mood and can ruin it for everyone else. "If five people are at the table, there's a 20% chance of having it go bad," she said. "Then anything you say is a potential time bomb. Nobody knows what's going to set someone off."

The time bombs in See's family were a result of five generations of alcohol and drug addiction, which she chronicled in her memoirs, "Dreams: Hard Luck and Good Times in America." (Random House, 1995). When her children were small, See said she was determined to avoid the sort of dinner table trauma she remembered from childhood. Like many families today, See and her children ate in front of the TV around a coffee table, a practice she admitted "is supposed to be a terrible thing."

Flo Weber, an Orinda, Calif., music teacher, remembers having to sit on a stool at every meal because her parents believed it taught her and her siblings good posture. She happily eliminated that rule in her own family.

She and her husband, Carl, an Oakland attorney, presided over their five children in a more informal dinner atmosphere. Each child was encouraged to express opinions and relate the day's events, a practice their son, Joe, continues with his three children.

Many families strive for that kind of experience but fall short of the mark. "Today the kids have to be out of the house by 6 o'clock to go to some practice or other and by the time they get home it's 8 before dinner is even started," lamented Ann Scaduto, a Glendora grandmother who worries that her grandchildren, Tory, 12, and Dagan, 8, are missing the joys of togetherness she knew when her children were still home and dinner was a family event. She laughed while confessing that, "When my grandkids are here all I'm doing is telling them to sit up straight, put the napkin in their lap."

The problem with the traditional meal is that to make it work, you often need a traditional family structure--a non-working parent at home cooking the food, another one returning home at the dinner hour after a hard day at the office, and children who have extracurricular activities that allow them to be home by 6 or 7 p.m.

Leslie Westbrook, a Santa Barbara journalist and editor, remembered her musician father coming to the table dressed in his tuxedo prior to going out to an engagement with a jazz band.

"We never saw him at breakfast because he'd be sleeping," said Westbrook, who longed to live in a family like that of her best friend, whose father was a colonel and whose mother was English. "The father seemed to me like a 'Father Knows Best' character, not like my father the musician," she said.

In many single-parent homes, members will often find alternative dining arrangements at mealtime. When at home, Ventura graduate student Marisa Miller ate her meals curled up in a cushioned chair while her younger sister sat alone at the dinner table. Their mother was usually busy with other tasks and the divorced father was not in the picture.

Neil Scott, a Seattle radio talk show host and journalist, recalled eating dinner alone as an only child. His father died when he was 7 and, while his mother was always there to prepare his meals, she didn't join him.

"With my own kids, I felt we needed to sit down together, say grace and check up on everyone's schedule. It was a time and place to get grounded and centered," Scott said.

Developing mealtime rituals that are distinctly different from those of a previous generation seems to be particularly important to those raised in families where dinner was either haphazard or too regimented.

In childhood, Jackie Powers of Ventura suffered through multi-generational meals presided over by a stern grandmother who dished out unusual rules along with the food.

"My grandmother would count how many times we chewed our milk, because she had it in her head that cows always chewed, so if you didn't chew your milk 10 times, you couldn't digest your food," said Powers, laughing. Other rules, such as finishing every bite of dinner before dessert, made for some long, dreary meals.

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