I have a large Irish-Italian-American family. Seating at holiday events is scarce. Adults sit at the dining room table and kids sit in front of anything large enough to balance a paper plate. From my Italian-American relatives on dad’s side I learned you can sit on a folding chair and use your thighs as a table. From my Irish-American relatives on mom’s side I learned that a couch armrest isn’t just a couch armrest; it’s also a dinner table and a place to lay your head while watching the Detroit Lions attempt to play football.
Adults table vs. kids table
Over at the adults table, the adults talk their serious talk. On mom’s side, which gathers together at Thanksgiving and on Christmas Day, the adult conversation centers on the following topics: personal health problems, recent funerals attended, those damn commie liberals, those beady-eyed Republicans, the merits of certain technologies (adults like Skype and can’t comprehend Twitter), the many ways my grandfather tortured his children emotionally and diabetes. So much talk about diabetes, like it’s a competition.
Over at the kids table, where some of the kids now have kids of their own, the talk tends to revolve around jokes, movies, TV shows, Internet videos, podcasts, stand-up comedians, travel, adventure and openly mocking the adult table by randomly shouting things like “Obama is a Republican!” and “My diabetes has diabetes!” and “Can you believe who died? Everyone! Everyone I know died last week.”
An unsupervised kids table is a wonderful thing. Many years ago my cousins and I reenacted the first Thanksgiving. As students of history we were compelled to include the sword battle between the pilgrims and Native Americans.
We also used the kids table to perform important scientific experiments such as “If you put a little bit of each side dish in a cup and mash it with eggnog will it make the best-tasting food of all time?” Answer: No.
The kids table is a place where cousins bond. The forces of ageism have banished you to the hinterlands of the house and made you to sit on third-string furniture held together by nothing but duct tape and hope. The food is always located as far away from your table as possible. It can be a struggle to acquire it.
My Aunt Eileen always laid out a great spread for Thanksgiving and always put the turkey and fixings in the kitchen. The adults sat in the dining room, which was adjacent to the kitchen. The kids sat in the living room, which meant we had to pass through the dining room to get to the kitchen.
When I was young, it was easy to get to the kitchen. I myself was smaller and my uncles, whom I love dearly, were then human-sized men. There was a good 18-inch gap between the back of their chairs and the cabinet against the wall behind them. This was our path to the kitchen. As my uncles enlarged, their chairs inched away from the table and closer to the cabinet.
First we passed by walking straight through. Then we passed by shuffling sideways. Then we shuffled sideways quickly while sucking in our stomachs. Eventually we got seconds by leaving through the front door, walking around the side of the house through the snow and entering the kitchen through the back of the house. Then we would walk back around the outside of the house to the front door and reenter the living room. It was easier.
When kids tables and adults tables collide
In spite of the many hardships my brothers, cousins and I were forced to endure, I have always, until recently, been a firm believer in the separation of kids tables and adults tables. I went so far as to write a column about it in 2002. I have since changed my mind.
My dad’s side of the family, which gathers on Christmas Eve, observed the classic kids-adults table dichotomy until a change of venue a few years ago. The family has grown so large no one house can contain it. Now instead of having Christmas at my aunt’s house, we eat potluck in the community room of a local boat club. The room has many tables and chairs spread out over a large area and the result is that cousins, aunts, uncles, moms, dads, friends and various generations mix to form never-before-assembled sets of dining partners. Each table is a kids and adults table.
This has had an unexpected benefit. Rather than talk about their bunions or one-up each other on funeral attendance, many of the adults actually have fun. They share good travel and food tips. They ask the kids to explain why anyone would ever use Twitter. They tell stories.
A few Christmases ago my Aunt Pat told us that when our grandfather came to America from Italy on a boat, he was given a banana to eat during one of his meals. He had never seen a banana before. When he arrived in America, he was offered another banana and refused. Turns out he had eaten the whole thing – peel and all – on the boat. As my brother Dan correctly asked, “Does that mean grandpa Donatelli was not smarter than a monkey?”
For the record: grandpa Donatelli was much smarter than a monkey.
I know this because over at the kids table we’ve been making a list of relatives who are not smarter than a monkey, and grandpa is not on that list.