The sale of paper table napkins is on the decline, due in part to people not sitting down at a table to eat a meal. Millennials in particular feel that paper towels are just as good and a faster option to dabbing the corners of their crumbly sticky mouths.
When I read this breaking napkin news, my brain did that screeching, sliding sideways thing that the General Lee did on the Dukes of Hazard because this is what I’ve been preaching about for years. Sitting down to eat a proper meal whether you are alone or with a group is one of the basic building blocks of a civil society. I can tolerate the pandemic, social unrest and nasty politics, but the demise of the family meal makes me want to march on Washington D.C.
Eating a proper meal at a proper table isn’t fancy or only for the elite. Families of all economic and social classes used to eat together every day. Whether there was a savory roast beef or watery soup on the table, children all grew up knowing how to sit, put a napkin in their lap and have civil conversation. They also knew how to set the table and wash the dishes.
The thing I loved most in my great-grandparent’s house, where I’d visit for reunions, was their kitchen table. Large enough for their 13 children, plus the preacher on Sunday, it was the longest table I’d ever seen. The chairs were mismatched but somehow seemed unified and I’d drag my finger around the edge of the table as I walked around, trying to imagine my grandfather eating there as a teenager. Filled with animated conversation, laughter — and because there were 11 boys, I’m sure a few squabbles, the kitchen was the heart of their home and the table was the main artery.
Using fine crystal goblets or plastic cups imprinted with “See Rock City” doesn’t matter, and I guess the paper towels don’t matter either, but to make the table a lovely place with whatever you have invites people to relax and linger. Even dining alone is more of a treat when a flower from the yard is tucked in a vase or there’s music playing instead of the blaring TV. The blessing of food is sweeter when we’re focused on our plate.
People don’t believe it, but my husband and I really do share a candlelight dinner almost every night. When our boys left for college, we started eating in the dining room, and since there were candles already on the table, we decided to light them, and found it was the most relaxing part of the day. We usually sit and talk for over an hour each night. It sounds fancy, but often it’s just regular old soup and salad. It’s not the food or table or chairs we love, it’s the ritual of tuning out the world for a while and grabbing the gift of time.
While the world seems to be pulling us apart, the table pulls us together. It’s often the only common experience a family will share all day. Shared food, shared ideas, dreams and stories and a shared view of sweet faces, and hopefully a pretty napkin.
This story first appeared on AL.com and in their newspapers, The Press-Register, The Birmingham News and The Huntsville Times.