For many years my parents held weekly family dinners at their house. Initially our family of six had plenty of elbow room around a large oval table. Over the years the family has grown to twenty-one squashed around two round tables and no elbows to be seen!
Mum and Dad toiled in their kitchen putting on sumptuous Chinese banquets. In later years we children would contribute a dish or two each. We don’t hold the dinners anymore — catering became too difficult, especially if one or two siblings were absent.
Apart from the stress of cooking, I miss those times and look back on them with fondness. The Big Family dinners provided a chance for siblings to stay in touch, to get to know their siblings’ partners and look on them like their own siblings. It provided an opportunity for young cousins to play together and become close – the large rumpus room downstairs was a perfect setting for this, where many a table tennis tournament, piano duet, tricycle race and paper plane contest took place.
We’d begin the dinner by drinking to anyone who had any achievements during the week. Sometimes the number of people who had announcements was so long, the food was in danger of getting cold, as we each clinked glasses with the happy person!
My second sister started a “Cheers Book” where we recorded the announcements. They could be as important as ‘We’re having a baby!’, or as simple as ‘Jonny did his first wee wee in the potty!’. The book charts the journey of our family over the years – a speaking part in a school play, engagements, Good Sportsmanship Award at soccer yesterday, new job, leaving old job, participation in art shows, going on holidays, getting through a difficult week, good assignment results, degrees, anniversaries of Dad’s quitting of smoking. I once received an award for volunteering as a reading tutor at my children’s school for 5 years. And I was proud that my achievement was documented in the family book.
Conversation-wise, my family has a taste for the ridiculous. One of my sisters would start by recounting something funny that happened to her that week. The rest of us would add comments here and there escalating the story to high comedy and while we’d almost choke with laughter, Mum, who is hard of hearing, would catch one word of the conversation and start talking about something else completely.
If there was a new baby present, grandmother and aunties would quietly race each other to finish their meal so they could be the one to relieve the tired parent of his/her load and run away to coo over it.
Birthday dinners came with singing and cake, the inevitable embarrassing ‘blowing the candles’ photo, and gifts.
Dinner on Election Night has always been a tightrope. The TV is left on through the night while someone looks around the corner of the dining room at it to report the latest. Some members of our family like to clearly show their political colours and of these, some (my eldest sister) try their hardest in the weeks leading up to the election, to influence those who like to keep their voting preferences to themselves (me). This could be very irritating for both parties involved, but one must suffer for one’s right to privacy!
Politically, Mum is the most vocal of us all and we all know that if you provoke her too much, the conversation at dinner can quickly turn sour. So most of us hold our tongues and wait until we clean up after the main meal, congregating in the kitchen to whisper our thoughts.
One of my sisters has correctly predicted winners of elections for as long as we can remember. She is like our very own Eden-Monaro (a swinging seat which almost always swings to the next government) and at dinners leading up to elections we always ask her opinion. She is like a sage.
Talk of politics at family dinners is not restricted to Election Night. It continues right through to the next election, especially when the government of the day has made a blunder, with the supporters of the last losing team saying to the supporters of the government, hey, how do you think the government you voted in, is going? Except for Mum, this is all taken in good humour.
Those were good times. Thanks Mum and Dad for all the effort you made to put on these dinners. They shaped our family and made us close.