Thursday, November 22, 2007

Faith Works 11-24-07
Jeff Gill

Setting the Table

First, we sit ourselves with the other kids at the card table or the dinette.

We have more mashed potatoes than corn, pass the relish plate and wait for the rolls, and even the turkey holds little interest for us in the shadow of whipped cream with a thin pumpkin pie underlay.

Then we end up at the adult table, acutely aware of the need to stick to silverware more than fingers, and hearing conversation that is mysterious when it isn’t boring.

Time goes on, and we begin to join in the discussion, even when it grows into debate. We can correctly identify about half of the relatives’ names as they go by, and put the napkin on our lap well before the end of the meal.

About the time we reflexively put the napkin on our lap right after grace, we’re using it for our own children in the old, old highchair which went back to your grandfather, wiping the strained squash from their chins.

Some of us move right on up to joining the ranks of the anointed, rustling and bustling about in the kitchen through the morning, to the hour of dinner, and back and forth right on through the meal.

From the salad forks at our plates to our roles in the preparation, we track one of the few clear “rites of passage” our culture offers. Beyond the driver’s license exam, the first date, and going off to college, there are few across-the-board shared experiences in American society that tell us we’re growing up.

Judaism has bar- and bat-mitzvahs entering adolescence, and Hispanic culture has the “QuinceaƱera” for fifteen year old girls, which middle-class “sweet sixteen” parties and debutante balls don’t quite track. Midwestern young men have making the team and varsity letters, which is significant for the small percentage of youths who get that experience. For the rest . . .

Thanksgiving dinner is still a common, shared, near-universal experience enough that it makes a cultural mark in more ways than the official, thankfulness-y purposes. I strongly suspect that the role alcohol and other substance abuse issues play among young adults is tied to the fact that lacking any other marker, drinking says “I’m grown up now, I’m moving forward in my life.”

But some families have such a strong sense of ritual and tradition around the meal that it can help bridge our cultural gap. You know what it means when you get a sharp knife at your place setting, and when that setting is at the big table.

Being invited to help mash the potatoes, or even to make the pies (!); joining the crew arms deep in soapy water, and not just running straight out to play touch football in the backyard after – these are ways to know, in your heart, you’re growing up. And we all need to know that, from some confirmatory source outside of ourselves.

When you help to lay to rest, in a small country cemetery, far past the last paved stretch of road, the woman who taught you how to put on a Thanksgiving dinner for twenty and more, and smile while you’re doing it, you know you’d best be about growed up. When you say the prayer of committal at her graveside, and stir gravy two days later while calling out instructions over your shoulder about the rolls, teaching your son how to put together the family feast, you know you’re pretty much an adult.

The new bifocals kind of drive the message home, too.

Many of us will be preparing for a different sort of ritual over these next few weeks, leading to the celebration of a birth into a very unusual family. The family is humankind, and the child is divine, and yet still human, and needs to grow and develop and know that he grows “in wisdom and in stature, before God and man.”

Think about this: how can our family rituals be signs and markers of maturity and growth for the children and youth among us? This may be one clear way we can set a path for them, in the direction we would hope.

It can start at the sink, or by the oven, and somehow it always ends up at a table. For boys or girls, young women or teenage men, the meal is what makes us, and we also make the meal.

For that lesson, thank you, Aunt Georgia. She’s earned her rest next to Aunt Chloa out at Greasy Point, and we will remember them every Thanksgiving.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s got a fair number of family buried in the Illinois prairie above the Embarras River (They pronounce it “Am-braw”). Tell him about a rite of passage you commend at

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