Manners and Memories Come From Our Childhood Tables


Insider Editor

During my childhood, we ate our family meals around a picnic table set up in the kitchen along a double window. My parents sat, each at one end of the table, while my sisters and I spread out along the benches.

I ended up with more than one splinter in my thigh sliding across the back bench. As the youngest, I was assigned a seat there.

I’ve got many fond memories around that table: late lazy breakfasts, Sunday dinners, happy holidays, around four decades’ worth of birthdays. Most of the memories are wonderful and warm. But not all of them are of the Norman Rockwell variety. 

One casual Saturday lunch of sandwiches proceeded without ado until my father, who had been watching his diet, decided he wanted a second sandwich. He said, mannerly, to my mother: “Please pass the bread.”

“Charles, you’ve had enough bread,” she firmly replied.

“Just pass the bread.”

“You don’t need any more bread.”

He gave her the look. “The bread. Betty.”

They stared at each other across that picnic table. We held our breath, waiting to see who would win the battle of wills.

Finally, my mother uttered that searing four-letter word that will kill any conversation: “Fine,” she said.

And she picked up the half-full bag of Sunbeam, stood up, placed it in her chair, and sat on it: once, twice, three times. She ceremoniously removed the bread from her chair, and passing the bread down the table, said sweetly, “Here you go.”

Without another word, my father stoically received the flattened bread, and . . . proceeded to make another sandwich.

This is now a story we tell around the table to gales of laughter. 

It comes to mind as Thanksgiving approaches and families will be gathering around tables that can be filled at the same time with love and strain. Tables are a place where along with table manners, important lessons are learned about how to be family.

At that picnic table I learned some important life lessons. 

I learned that I should never answer “yes” when my sister asks if I like “see food.” I learned that under the edge of your plate is a poor place to hide your peas. I learned that if you choke on a cracker, you should hold your arms over your head.

I learned that it is possible to spew soda out of your nose when someone makes you laugh. And that it really hurts.

I learned which fork to use, when and to keep my elbows off the table.

I learned that guests get first helpings. I learned that saying “please” gets second helpings passed around more quickly than making demands.

I learned that a short dinner prayer is preferable to a long one.

I learned that, when mom says “enough,” she means it. 

I learned our family stories and our rhythms and traditions and jokes and tall tales.

I learned that the loudest silence in the whole wide world happens when someone storms off from a meal. I learned that when that person is you, and you find yourself hungry later, that it is not really bread that you want. And I learned, if you are willing to eat humble pie and come back in, that you won’t be turned away.

Meals don’t have to be perfect to learn what it means to eat together. Tables are a place where we can learn again and again to show grace and offer gratitude. 

From my table to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.

Contact Insider editor Maggie Beamguard at