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Family meal

07/25/07 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen

(HOST) There aren't many things more enjoyable than sharing a family meal. And commentator Vic Henningsen suggests we shouldn't take them for granted.

(HENNINGSEN) When we celebrated my parents' 55th wedding anniversary, my three siblings and I did something we thought was pretty ordinary. It turned out to be anything but. We had a family meal.

On their 45th, we surprised them with a big bash and on their 50th had an only slightly smaller dinner party for extended family and friends. This time we decided to go small and intimate: just my parents and their children; no spouses, no grandchildren.

As we sat down to a table at their favorite restaurant, my father looked around and asked: "How long has it been since we last shared a meal as an immediate family - just the six of us?"

Do you know, we couldn't tell. It took us virtually the entire meal even to come up with a reasonable guess, that it must have been sometime in the early 1970's. Although we couldn't remember the precise date, we agreed we were probably arguing about Richard Nixon.

The fact that we couldn't identify a specific moment stuck with me. Here was a family that shared meals for over twenty years until, at some point, they didn't anymore. When was the pivotal moment?

Impossible to say.

All we know for sure is that as kids grew up there were fewer opportunities to gather. Even when we were together on holidays, other people - a college friend, someone's girlfriend or boyfriend, random cousins or neighbors - were likely to have been there too. No one commented on the change, because no one noticed it. It seems to have been part of a larger and perfectly natural letting-go; an organic by-product of children moving into adulthood.

Still, it haunts me that on a random summer evening my parents and their four children sat down to an ordinary meal together and didn't do so again for thirty years. We were able to repeat it only once. Sadly, we can never do it again.

As our own 25th anniversary approached, my wife and I realized we might repeat family history. Our kids are adults now - living on opposite coasts - and we last sat down to a meal together in December. So we shelved plans for some big extravaganza in favor of gathering our children for a few more family meals while they're still unattached. Meeting at our daughter's in New York, we celebrated what we once took for granted, knowing it can't last.

As it happened, we did repeat a little family history. Having watched Frank Langella's superb performance in the broadway hit "Frost/Nixon", we spent our final meal together arguing about Nixon.

Later, when someone asked, "How long have you been doing these family meals?", I gave the same response that, for fifty-eight years, my late father made to the question "How long have you been married?"

Not long enough.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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